A social media campaign to get people interacting with museum curators has revealed one museum curator’s bias against Asian culture and history.
And those who noticed the tweet are calling the museum out.
The British Museum is getting dragged for saying Asian names can be "confusing." pic.twitter.com/q9qJ2r47FN— AJ+ (@ajplus) September 14, 2017
The British Museum on Wednesday participated in #AskACurator, a Twitter hashtag generated to let people submit questions to exhibit curators about their work. Using the hashtag, the Maas Museum in Sydney, Australia, asked the London-based museum how it makes labels for exhibits “accessible to a wider range of people?”
A curator identified as “Jane, Keeper of Asia” responded by saying their curators write labels based on the topics they specialize in, which are then edited by an Interpretation department.
The British Museum aims “to be understandable by 16 year olds,” Jane explained. Then she provided “confusing” Asian names as an example ― a move that made a lot of Asian people uncomfortable.
“Sometimes Asian names can be confusing, so we have to be careful about using too many,” Jane wrote. “We are limited by the lengths of labels. Dynasties & gods have different names in various Asian languages,” she continued. “We want to focus on the stories.”
Jane, Keeper of Asia: Curators write the labels based on their specialist knowledge and they are edited by our Interpretation department ... https://t.co/b1nP0CQ0fS?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000313— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
... We aim to be understandable by 16 year olds. Sometimes Asian names can be confusing, so we have to be careful about using too many.— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
We are limited by the length of labels. Dynasties & gods have different names in various Asian languages. We want to focus on the stories— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
Many people were concerned with the British Museum’s response and called the curators out for limiting the number of Asian names they use just because they thought Asian names were confusing.
you: Asian names are hard— 혼혈 (@noahjussi) September 13, 2017
you: I love the music of Tchaikovsky
you: Schwarzenegger movies are great
you: my fav Targaryen is Daenerys
Jesus. Confusing to whom, your white patrons? Haven't you stolen enough history?— Jillian (@jilliancyork) September 13, 2017
It wasn't confusing enough for you to colonise Asia, but it's too confusing for you to write Asian names. Okay, British Museum. https://t.co/NkKrNS0e76?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000313— African Renaissance (@JJ_Bola) September 13, 2017
Shockingly the British Museum inadvertently reveals it is run by white people from a former colonial power https://t.co/ZLgeuEtZr4?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000313— Malinda Lo (@malindalo) September 13, 2017
If they can pronounce names like Tchaikovsky or Pavarotti, they can pronounce Asian names.— KC. (@KayChowdhury) September 13, 2017
Lololol. Classic Imperialist right there. You go ahead and stay on brand, England. "Take everything, use what I want, & throw out the rest."— not yr bff. (@YrBFFAnna) September 13, 2017
Yeah might as well just erase our whole confusing histories for an easy life eh https://t.co/VfbCZVufOe?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000313— kieranyates (@kieran_yates) September 13, 2017
The museum later apologized for the initial response and clarified Jane’s point by saying she was speaking only to objects that have multiple Asian names. But the reasoning she used for doing so is a bit problematic.
While that practice of using the least-confusing Asian name might make the curators’ jobs more convenient, it holds Asian history back from reaching wider audiences. This is especially concerning when done in a place dedicated for people to learn about the world’s diverse history.
Moreover, the assumption that Asian words would turn off young people prevents young people from learning about Asian culture ― and it shows that the museum’s main target audience is likely non-Asian or non-minority groups. The practice also reinforces a norm that already exists in many western societies: Asian culture is exotic, abnormal and not worth learning if it’s too difficult to comprehend.
Despite the backlash, some people defended the museum’s handling of Asian names, arguing that the space restrictions are difficult to work around.
The amount of people jumping all over an admittedly poorly worded/expressed Tweet is as hilarious as it is pathetic. Especially when...— Andrew Garvey (@AMGarvey) September 13, 2017
... they haven't the faintest idea about the wider issue of making labels accessible, clear and straight to the point. The amount of...— Andrew Garvey (@AMGarvey) September 13, 2017
... info visitors can take in from labels and text panels is very limited. I know. I've written and edited text for exhibitions and .....— Andrew Garvey (@AMGarvey) September 13, 2017
... its a constant trade-off. Supplemental resources and tech are the only way this can be achieved.— Andrew Garvey (@AMGarvey) September 13, 2017
Responding to the outrage from Jane the curator’s tweet, the British Museum issued an apology in a series of statements that further explained the point Jane was trying to make.
The museum clarified Jane’s initial response by saying she was talking specifically about “label-writing” ― which has limited space for letters ― and including “multiple names” for a single feature.
“The challenge with label-writing is not about whether people are able to understand or pronounce unfamiliar names, it is a question of whether we give multiple names to the same place/period/person in one label,” the museum said.
In another statement, the British Museum maintained that their labels tell the “object’s story” and “essential information” about it.
“We are not always able to reflect the complexity of different names [for example] periods, rulers, gods in different languages and cultures on labels,” the museum wrote, adding that in-depth information is provided in other museum programs and digital content.
Apologies, we would just like to add some further clarification here: pic.twitter.com/t9xnJ8rJ3S— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
In response to some of your questions today, we feel it's important to address a few final points about object labels: pic.twitter.com/ArrSEROGFr— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
The debate over the British Museum’s labeling practices continues to wage on over Twitter.
But amid all the outrage and arguing, one thing is for certain: The tweet has sparked a much-needed discussion about how museum curators — the gatekeepers of history — treat the histories of minority groups.
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.