x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 September 2017

'Racism' row after British Museum curator says 'Asian names can be confusing'

The 'ask a curator' session ended in controversy

The British Museum has been accused of having problems with diversity
The British Museum has been accused of having problems with diversity

The venerable British Museum has apologised after the curator of its Asia department said "Asian names can be confusing" to teenagers "so we have to be careful about using too many" on Twitter.

Jane Portal was taking part in an "ask a curator" session when she made the comment, which sparked criticism from those who said it was a sign of a lack of diversity at the institution.

Ms Portal, using the British Museum’s Twitter account, made the comments in response to a question from the Sydney-based Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, who asked: “How do you go about designing exhibition labels and information that are accessible to a wider range of people?”

She wrote: “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.”

Subsequent tweets, sent from the account with 1.52m followers, added: “We are limited by the length of labels. Dynasties and gods have different names in various Asian languages. We want to focus on the stories.

“E.g. the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy is known as Avalokitesvara in India, Guanyin in China, Kwanum in Korea and Kannon in Japan.”

Dea Birkett, creative director of Kids in Museums, said: “These names aren’t ‘confusing’ if they’re your heritage. This is a diversity issue. Do you have a problem with Pavarotti? No.

 

The British Museum later issued a clarification, saying: “We would like to apologise for any offence caused.

“Jane was answering a very specific question about how we make the information on object labels accessible to a wider range of people.

"Label text for any object is necessarily limited and we try to tell the object’s story as well as include essential information about what it is and where it is from.

“We are not always able to reflect the complexity of different names for eg. periods, rulers, gods in different languages and cultures on labels.”