'Sometimes Asian names can be confusing': British Museum apologises after Q&A sparks backlash

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The British Museum has apologised after tweeting that Asian names “can be confusing” and should not be used to regularly in exhibitions.

The institution’s Asia curator was taking part in an #AskACurator session on Twitter, in which staff at museums around the world answer questions.

Jane Portal made the remark while responding to a question about ensuring exhibition labels are accessible to as large an audience as possible.

A post on the museum’s official Twitter account read: “Curators write the labels based on their specialist knowledge and they are edited by our Interpretation department. 

“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.”

The response sparked a backlash, with social media users hitting out at the “inappropriate” comment.

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

And another user added: “We learn Greek and Roman variations easily so why should this be any different?”

Shaz Hussain, a collections assistant at the RAF Museum, branded Ms Portal’s comments “insulting”.

Another Twitter user said: “What are you saying to those of us – and especially the kids – with Asian names doing this? Think long & hard about this.”

Amid the social media storm, some users jumped to the defence of the museum.

One user said: “The amount of people jumping all over an admittedly poorly worded/expressed Tweet is as hilarious as it is pathetic. Especially when they haven’t the faintest idea about the wider issue of making labels accessible, clear and straight to the point.”

He added: “Info visitors can take in from labels and text panels is very limited. I know. I’ve written and edited text for exhibitions an its a constant trade-off. Supplemental resources and tech are the only way this can be achieved.”

Another wrote: “In fairness, there are a lot more restrictions in making exhibitions/labels than most people realise.”

After subsequent tweets attempted to explain the curator’s point further, the museum issued a clarification, saying in statement: “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.”


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