A German museum that renamed some 143 classic artworks it considered to have “racist or otherwise discriminatory” titles has been accused of “identity theft” after making the “far-reaching intervention” without a public mandate.

Since early 2020, curators at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) – a cultural museum under the German state of Saxony – have completely changed the titles of 120 pieces of art and made partial changes to 23 other works in an apparent effort to make them ‘politically correct’. The SKD houses an estimated 1.5 million-strong inventory of historic works.

The museum has been removing content it considers outdated, including the terms “gypsy,” “Eskimo,” “Indian” (referring to indigenous people) and “Moor” – and has reportedly even ditched references to “natives” and “dark-skinned” people.

In one example, a 17th century Dutch painting originally called “Dog, Dwarf and Boy” has been renamed “Dog, Short Man and Boy,” while a bronze sculpture known as “Black Venus” was changed to “African Woman with a Mirror.”

The extent of the revisions varies, according to the MDR news outlet, which reported that some original titles by the artists are put in quotation marks with a note identifying them as “historical titles.” Others, which were not originally named or have had no fixed titles, have “taboo” words hidden by an asterisk.

The move has drawn outrage from some in Germany, with the right-wing AfD party slamming it last month as an example of “left cancel culture.” The party’s state unit reportedly called on the government of Saxony to reverse the “outrageous” act by the “language police.”

In response to the AfD’s demand for answers in the state parliament, the Saxon State Ministry for Science, Culture and Tourism, which has oversight authority over the SKD museum, reportedly claimed to have “neither initiated nor carried out such a review.” 

Prominent German historians and museum directors have also weighed in on the campaign. German Museum Association board member Reinhard Spieler told MDR that “certain words should not be taboo” in cultural institutions, noting that the “point of museums” was to “make it clear that other cultures and times have represented different values.” He acknowledged, however, that it was a difficult issue and that it’s conceivable that titles may change over time.

“Do the renaming staff from the service not notice how much they make a mockery of themselves and their actually good intentions?” historian Michael Wolffsohn told Bild newspaper.

But SKD Director Marion Ackermann defended the campaign as “normal museum work.” Writing in Dresden’s Sachsische Zeitung paper, Ackermann noted that “the utmost awareness of language” was central to the museum’s goals.

Ackermann wrote that the language is successively revised “in order not to hurt people” through its reproduction and that “discriminatory terms from historical titles are faded out by four asterisks.”

However, the renaming campaign has been accused of “identity theft” by an online petition that demands the state’s culture ministry force the “all too woke” SKD museum management to reverse its “excesses” and “prevent further works of art from being renamed in the future.”

Blasting the museum for undertaking its “far-reaching intervention” without “public conversation” or “mandate” from the Saxon “owners” of the artworks, the petition said that such “interventions in language design are fundamentally ascribed to authoritarian regimes.”

The petition, which requires 12,000 signatures before it goes to the ministry, currently has 7,346 votes in support since being launched last month.

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