'Asian names can be confusing': British Museum apologizes for curator remarks on Twitter
The British Museum is shown in this file photo. (jennyt/Shutterstock.com)
Published Wednesday, September 13, 2017 11:23AM EDT
The British Museum has apologized for comments made by one of its curators on Twitter, after the Keeper of Asia said “Asian names can be confusing” when included on display labels.
The controversy broke out during a Twitter Q&A session on Wednesday, as the British Museum participated in the museum-related hashtag #AskACurator. Jane Portal, the museum’s Keeper of Asia, was asked how she designs exhibition labels and information so that it is “accessible to a wide range of people.”
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“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,” Portal said through the British Museum’s Twitter account. She also explained that the labels are compiled based on specialist knowledge, and are edited by the museum’s interpretation department.
“We are limited by the length of labels,” she continued. “Dynasties and gods have different names in various Asian languages. We want to focus on the stories.”
Portal cited the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy as an example, pointing out that the concept is known by different names in India, China, Korea and Japan.
E.g. the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy is known as Avalokitesvara in India, Guanyin in China, Kwanum in Korea and Kannon in Japan.— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
Twitter users were quick to pounce on Portal’s comments, with several pointing out that the lengths of names are not an issue with exhibits dedicated to Greco-Roman gods or obscure dinosaurs.
5 year olds will confidently rattle off five-syllable dinosaur names. So...!— sam shelley (@hermesgypsy) September 13, 2017
“Non-Asian 16-year-olds only find Asian names confusing because they are unfamiliar and nobody teaches how to say them,” one user wrote. “Surely you should be working against this view, not shoring it up?”
“Jane, the Keeper of Asia,” added another. “Now that’s a… colonial title if I’ve ever heard one.”
“They didn’t find them confusing when they were colonizing, looting and filling the museums to begin with. Funny that,” said a third user.
Portal’s remarks generated hundreds of comments and prompted the museum to issue an apology approximately an hour later.
“We would like to apologize for any offence caused,” the British Museum said on Twitter. “Jane was answering a very specific question about how we make the information on object labels accessible to a wider range of people.”
The museum says in its statement that space is limited on object labels, and that staff “try to tell the object’s story as well as include information about what it is and where it is from. We are not always able to reflect the complexity of different names.”
Apologies, we would just like to add some further clarification here: pic.twitter.com/t9xnJ8rJ3S— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017
In response to your comments, we feel it's important to address a few final points here: pic.twitter.com/3cRkiwePtU— British Museum (@britishmuseum) September 13, 2017