Accused of “cancelling culture”, Dresden museums defend the renaming of works

Facing political scrutiny and accusations of being “woke”, the Dresden State Art Collections (SKD) have defended their decision to rename 143 works with discriminatory or inaccurate titles.

Last fall, the tabloid Bild-Zeitung published an article describing the management of the Dresden museums as the “speech police” for changing certain titles. The right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, the largest in the Saxon state parliament, then tabled a motion calling on the organization – which oversees 15 museums – to reverse what it called the name change “politically motivated” works.

The SKD pointed out that the titles of the works in the collections were rarely given by the artists and often changed several times over generations. The museum collections database, called Daphne, lists nearly 1.5 million objects. The 143 names that have been changed since 2020 therefore represent less than 0.01% of the total.

In cases where there is a historical or artist-given title, terms that may offend – including ‘Negro’, ‘Moorish’ and ‘Gypsy’ – have been replaced with asterisks in the database. But users who click on a trigger warning can still see the original title. One of these works is the famous Moor with emerald cluster (1724) at the Green Vault Museum. (The statuette was actually based on images of Native Americans.)

In other cases, the organization corrected inaccurate titles. For example, he eliminated the word “Negress” from the non-historical title of a drawing by Rembrandt in the Kupferstichkabinett (gallery of prints) because current research suggests that the nude figure depicted was not African, but a woman. fair-skinned lying on cushions in the shadows.

“We are not doing this alone,” says Doreen Mende, head of the SKD’s research department. “The SKD is in continuous exchange with museums as well as universities in Germany and abroad to reflect, update and critically discuss our research process.” In a statement, the organization says it “follows the standards of museums around the world”, citing the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as other institutions that have changed the titles of the works.

A petition demanding that the SKD return to the old names of the works – initiated by a member of another right-wing party, the Freie Wähler – did not collect enough signatures to gain a hearing in parliament. The AfD motion, debated at length in the Saxon parliament last November, was rejected by the other parties represented in the assembly. Andreas Nowak, an MP for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, accused the AfD of trying to attack museums’ “research and teaching freedom”.

Nowak, however, said the SKD made a communication error by inadequately explaining the title changes to the public and giving way to what he described as a tabloid “shitstorm.”

The SKD has since posted an explanation of the name change policy on its website and plans to introduce the changes to exhibits and audio guides, incorporating the works in question.

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