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What’s in a Name? A Resource for Difficult Conversations

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Yale recently released a Report of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. I’m using this post as an addendum to TrendsWatch 2016, adding the renaming report to TrendsWatch’s list of resources museums can use to navigate difficult decisions regarding representation, identity, and material culture. The process the committee used to gather input and conduct research is a model for thorough, inclusive, open-minded consideration of a contentious topic; and the principles presented in the report provide a useful framework for museums dealing with similar controversies in their own institutions or in their communities.

Yale empaneled the renaming committee as part of an ongoing conversation sparked by student protests calling on the university to rename Calhoun College (one of twelve residential colleges housing undergraduates). John Calhoun was a 19th century US Senator from South Carolina who also served as vice president and secretary of state, and was an outspoken defender of slavery.  As documented in the report, some students feel that the Calhoun name “is emblematic of a more general phenomenon of racial oppression and injustice at Yale.” In a video (embedded below) that accompanied the release of the report, Jonathan Holloway, Dean of Yale College and a member of the committee, said “we tell stories about who we are by the names we use for buildings, places, or things.” This caught my attention, as museums deal with the consequences of such storytelling on several fronts

Some museums struggle with their own problematic names. For example, last fall Cornell University announced it was changing the name of Cornell Plantations to Cornell Botanic Gardens noting that “for many the name Plantations evoked negative associations with slavery and racial oppression.” Other museums are reexamining the stories told by the names (terminology) used to describe their collections. Most notably, the Rijksmuseum has altered the titles of several hundred works in their 1.1 million piece collection to remove racially and culturally offensive terms.
The 24-page report presents a long, thoughtful examination of the issues surrounding renaming in general. After reviewing issues of renaming in general, and the history of John C. Calhoun and Calhoun College in particular, the committee explores three principles to guide decision making.
The first principle presumes that renaming on account of values should be an exceptional event.“Holding all else equal, it is a virtue to appreciate the complexity of those lives that have given shape to the world in which we live.” The report notes, for example, that Mahatma Gandhi, “the Indian independence leader who inspired a worldwide movement of nonviolent protest, held starkly racist views about black Africans.”
With the second principle, the report affirms that sometimes renaming on the basis of values is warranted. In making this determination, the committee stresses the importance of identifying a namesake’s “principal legacy”—the lasting effects that cause a namesake to be remembered. For example, the report notes that Frederick Douglass, honored for his principal legacy as an abolitionist and advocate for civil rights, held racist views regarding Native Americans. That principal legacy can then be evaluated, for example, in light of an organization’s mission and the original reasons for honoring the namesake.
The third principle proposes that decisions to retain a name or to rename come with obligations of nonerasure, contextualization, and process. Changing a name, the report notes, does not have to be synonymous with erasing history. “Changing a name in one place may impose obligations of preservation in others.” The committee observes that affirmative steps to avoid the problems of erasure may include “museum-like exhibits” along with public art and other forms of interpretation.
This process and principles reflected in the renaming report may be useful for museums reexamining their own issues about naming (whether of buildings, programs, objects). They also provide a framework for museums helping their community make decisions about renaming and reconsideration of monuments and memorials. Museum archives and collections can provide context for the deliberations, scholarship can illuminate the context of original decisions at different points in history, and museums as trusted conveners can facilitate difficult conversations, and solicit input from a wide variety of stakeholders.
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  1. One of the most thoughtful reports on a specific name change of an historic building occurred regarding a dormitory at the University of Colorado. The original name was given to a Civil War US Military person who was significantly involved in the Sand Creek Massacre. The detailed report can serve as a great example of a deliberate process of examining the past and present with regards to such a name change. The report can be found here:

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