Removing, replacing without recognising and explaining

When I first read Why the Rijksmuseum Is Removing Bigoted Terms from Its Artworks’ Titles by Carey Dunne here I thought the act outrageous. I felt that such acts would damage the art by removing the cultural contexts they were created in and superimpose contemporary values. Thus people who viewed them would misunderstand how (and often why) they came to be made and what they speak to.

But we all know that institutions like museums and galleries  not only reflect values but help create and bolster them. Given this it would seem reasonable to challenge out-dated oppressive terms, wouldn’t it?

Well, if we simply remove and replace terms as in this case then we may be on dangerous ground. We are removing and replacing without recognising and explaining.  Thus viewers will not be told how the original arts came to be named in historical ways and why. So they might well misunderstand how and why and what the images speak to and of at the time and place of their creation. Yet, as we have seen, to do nothing will just reinforce out-dated values. 

One way forward that addresses both this issues has been achieved. Besley and Low show how, in Reflections on Representing Experiences of Mental Illness in Museums, a reorientation of subject matter can be achieved that both recognises the impairment and demonstrates the social construction of disabling factors – attitudes and organisational and physical barriers – by re-contextualising artefacts so that they can be read in a new way that emphasised the service users perspective rather than the provider’s point of view (2010).

Such an approach both recognises contemporary and historical values and contexts and so helps explain both how and why things come into being and how and why the way we view them and speak about them changes over time. 

Now if only the Rijksmuseum had though about that approach. 


Besley, J. and Low, C, (2010) ‘Hurting and Healing: Reflections on Representing Experiences of Mental Illness in Museums’, in Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum by Sandell, Dodd and Garland-Thomson eds. Published by Routledge, pp. 130-142


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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