Faced with 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 autumn, the tabloid Bild-Zeitung published an article describing the Dresden museums leadership as the “speech police” for changing some titles. The right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, the biggest in the state parliament of Saxony, subsequently put forward a motion calling on the organisation—which oversees 15 museums—to reverse what it called the “politically motivated” renaming of works.
The SKD pointed out that the titles of works in the collections were rarely given by the artists and have often changed several times over generations. The museums’ collection 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 historic title or one given by the artist, terms that could cause offence—including “negro”, “moor” and “gypsy”—have been replaced with asterisks in the database. But users who click on a trigger warning can still view the original title. One such work is the famous Moor with Emerald Cluster (1724) in the Green Vault museum. (The statuette was actually based on images of Indigenous Americans.)
In other cases, the organisation has corrected inaccurate titles. For example, it eliminated the word “Negress” from the non-historical title of a Rembrandt drawing in the Kupferstichkabinett (prints gallery) because current research suggests the nude figure portrayed was not African, but a light-skinned woman lying on cushions in the shadows.
“We are not doing this alone,” says Doreen Mende, the head of the SKD’s research department. “The SKD is in continuous exchange with museums as well as universities in Germany and internationally to critically reflect, update and discuss our research process.” In a statement, the organisation says it is “following the standards of museums worldwide”, citing the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as fellow institutions that have modified the titles of works.
A petition demanding that the SKD revert to the works’ previous names—initiated by a member of another right-wing party, the Freie Wähler—failed to garner enough signatures to secure a hearing in parliament. The AfD’s motion, which was debated at length in the Saxon parliament last November, was rejected by the other parties represented in the assembly. Andreas Nowak, a lawmaker for the conservative Christian Democratic Union, accused the AfD of trying to attack museums’ “freedom to research and teach”.
Nowak said, however, that the SKD had made a communications error by inadequately explaining the title changes to the public and leaving scope for what he described as a tabloid “shitstorm”.
The SKD has since published an explanation of the renaming policy on its website and plans to introduce the changes into displays and audio-guides, incorporating the works in question.