‘Asian Names Can Be Confusing’: British Museum Apologizes After a Curator’s Tweet Provokes Accusations of Racism

The museum is under fire after curator Jane Porter made a controversial comment about labeling practices during a Twitter Q&A.

People walk to and from the main entrance of the British Museum in central London. Photo: NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images.

The British Museum is facing accusations of racism and oversimplification after a curator said in a tweet on Wednesday that Asian names are sometimes omitted from wall texts and labels to avoid confusing visitors.

The museum’s Keeper of Asia, Jane Porter, made the comment while participating in an “ask a curator” session, a program where the institution invites Twitter users to ask specialists about their field of expertise.

When asked, “How do you go about designing exhibition labels and information that are accessible to a wide range of people?” Porter replied, “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 comment provoked criticism almost immediately, with Twitter users accusing the museum of racism, while many cited Britain’s colonial history and the British Museum’s controversial role in displaying the looted treasures of its former colonies.

For example, Twitter user JJ Bola said, “It wasn’t confusing enough for you to colonize Asia but it’s too confusing for you to write Asian names. Okay, British Museum.”

Another user, Shelly Asquith pointed out many Londoners and visitors are of Asian heritage. “British Museum curator’s comments about ‘confusing Asian names’ makes you wonder if the team has been to a London school in last 10 years.” While writers Dea Birkett and Rebecca Mileham tweeted, “Those names aren’t unfamiliar to those who have them! Presumptions here are extraordinary. Would never happen if you had diverse staff.”

Within hours the museum tweeted an apology “for any offense caused,” explaining, “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.”

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