Rijksmuseum takes White-Out to Art History

by Rea McNamara on December 10, 2015 · 1 comment Opinion

Collection notes for this Margaretha van Raephorst portrait recently renamed the "negro servant" in the work as a "young black servant". Credit: Rijkmuseum/Dutch News

Collection notes for this Margaretha van Raephorst portrait recently renamed the “negro servant” in the work as a “young black servant”. Credit: Rijkmuseum/Dutch News

Has the trigger warning phenomenon hit institutional curation?

The New York Times reported today on an ongoing project at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum to have their history department curators remove “racially-charged terms” from the titles and even descriptions of artworks in their collection’s online catalog.

This means, for instance, that a 1900 work like Simon Maris’s “Young Negro-Girl” is now “Young Girl Holding a Fan”. Other dated European racially-charged terms like “negro”, “Indian” or “dwarf” will be removed in an effort, as Martine Gosselink, Rijksmuseum’s head of its history department explains, “not to use names given by whites to others.”

I’m all for cultural institutions trying to re-address the racist history of its ethnographic collecting. But does it make sense to change titles—especially those given by the work’s creator? For a former slaving nation still struggling with its Zwarte Piet yearly tradition, this seems like a “non-racism” performance in a contentious context. For online visitors, the absence of these terms de-contextualizes the Rijksmuseum’s museological display of objects, eliminating the role the institution has played in shaping the cultural “other”. That’s part of its history, and it’s a shame that the museum is giving more power to these dated terms by removing them, rather than simply addressing head-on the etymology. As one NYT commenter shared on the Times story, “it is instructive to know where we’ve been compared to where we are. It is part of history and part of the dialogue. There is big difference between awareness of offensive terms we interact with on a daily basis and sanitizing historical record. It is a form of lying.”

There’s a connection between the Rijksmuseum and the trigger warning phenomenon. A recent survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship noted just some of the “traumatic topics” students have flagged in their college art classes: spiders, nude models in a drawing class, “images of childbirth”—even learning that a favourite artist was likely gay. “In the last two years, I’d had students want pretty detailed and specific trigger warnings for, well, everything, which seems kind of stifling,” one instructor anecdotally shared in the report.

As museums feel the pressure to become tourist attractions, I’m concerned about trigger warning affecting the so-called coddled generation’s ability to mount the next wave of institutional critique—especially if anything that’s “offensive” is put into storage. Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum at Baltimore’s Maryland Historical Society in 1992 treated the artifacts of the Society’s collection as “raw materials” in order to show how the acquisition history of the institution failed to represent Maryland’s African- and Native-American histories. One profoundly impactful installation was a trio of portrait busts of Napoleon, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson shown alongside three empty black pedestals labelled for three prominent local Marylanders: Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass. Here, their marked absence was noted.

Jens Hoffmann, in his recently-published Theatre of Exhibitions, praised Wilson’s curation as an “incredibly influential” exhibition alongside Joseph Kosuth’s The Play of the Unmentionable at the Brooklyn Museum (where the artist selected and displayed artifacts that had at one point been censored) for curators to “‘think past’ the confines of an institutional collection.”

In today’s climate, could an exhibition featuring such emotional, “trigger warning” material be mounted? All histories—even ugly ones—deserve to be told, and shared.

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