On the Reading List: Words Matter

Marabou’s inaugural suggested reading is the digital book, Words Matter: An Unfinished Guide to Word Choices in the Cultural Sector, a collaboration among four Dutch institutions, lead by the Tropen Museum. The Tropen is an ethnographic museum that opened in 1864. It is currently working to reconsider how they tell the stories of cultures from around the world. Marabou has discussed the way word choice and tone within museum galleries perpetuate colonial thinking and biases; Words Matter is addressing exactly that. The book is a series of thought essays by different scholars exploring language around race, colonialism, ability, migration, immigration, and more.

In the book’s forward, Stijn Schoonderwoerd, director of the Tropen Museum writes the following:

“For us, as a museum that deals with cultures from across the world and that has the task of representing these diverse cultures with integrity, it has become a necessity to be self-critical about the types of narratives we develop and the words we use. We have come to question our perspectives and our practices of marketing and display, and seek to include diverse voices. In doing so, we have to think about the words or phrases that are sensitive to particular groups, that can cause offense, that elide important context, and that are understood as derogatory.

That words and norms around language are constantly in transition can cause confusion and discomfort to those accustomed to these words; this is also true with museums. But society changes, and language changes with it. Our objects may be timeless, but the ways we speak about them are not.”

Schoonderwoerd goes on to say that the book and work is not complete or final and is a work in progress. He makes an open invitation for readers to provide feedback, understanding that it takes more than a single institution (or handful of them in this matter) to solve the problems around language and representation in museums.


Shoutout to friend Janine Francios for introducing Marabou to this book!

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