Words Matter

Words Matter - Publication

Compiled by the National Museum of World Cultures (formely known as Tropenmuseum, Afrika Museum, Museum Volkenkunde, Wereldmuseum).

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With this publication the four museums have contributed to the dialogue about word use in the museum world and have joined the social debate on whether certain words are appropriate today. The publication explains that the description of an object has just as much meaning as the object itself. This can help us to understand why a word that has no connotations for one person is particularly sensitive to another. WORDS MATTER provides insight and alternatives.

Informed choices

Museums pose questions regarding the use of certain terminology. What words do we use and what words do we not use in museum texts and in what context? How do we deal with the registration of the collection? And is our word use still actually appropriate today? The aim of the publication is to provide more insight into the political and social connotations of certain words that are used in museums. Readers, in particular museum staff, can use this information when writing texts and documenting objects. The publication can also provide support and advice for departments such as Education, Marketing and Programming. It should enable readers to make more informed choices about the words they use.

Work in progress

The word list does not claim to be comprehensive. There will undoubtedly be words that are missing. This publication is therefore a work in progress, the result to date. It provides a basis for further talks and is an invitation to others to contribute to further developments. 

Practical applications

In 2016 Wereldmuseum Amsterdan invited the Decolonize the Museum collective (a group that confronts museums with their use of language and image) to organize an intervention in which they critically scrutinized the texts in the museum’s permanent exhibition. These criticisms were the inspiration for the museum’s texts being renewed in 2017. Work is in progress at the Afrikamuseum and the Wereldmuseum and certain texts in Museum Volkenkunde will also be amended.