Danish national museum removing outdated term from Arctic exhibits

The National Museum of Denmark is stripping the word “Eskimo” — a term many people consider outdated, even derogatory — from its exhibits, website and social media posts over the coming months.

The term is being replaced by “Inuit” and “Inuk” or more specific regional names, the museum announced in a Facebook post in July.

It’s a “necessary change,” said Martin Appelt, a senior researcher and curator with the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. 

The old word, which dates back to 1605, had been collectively used to describe Inuit from Greenland, Canada, Siberia and Alaska, according to the museum’s Facebook post announcing the change.

While it is still used by people in Alaska, in Greenland and most of the Eastern Arctic it’s not widely used today, he said.

“There’s of course no consensus or one opinion about this across a whole nation,” he said. 

The National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. The museum is stripping a term that many people consider outdated from its exhibits, website and social media posts. (National Museum of Denmark)

Still, he said, an update is long overdue.

The old term “covers up the diversity of the people living across the North,” said Appelt. “It’s way over the proper time of making these [changes].”

The announcement came a week after Edmonton’s CFL team stripped the word from its name.

Several Danish ice cream companies were also in the spotlight this summer for using the term to market their products, said Appelt. 

The museum’s decision was not political and had been discussed for “a long time,” he said. The Danish museum has collaborated with its counterpart in Greenland for years.

Appelt points to a lack of funding as the reason for the museum’s delay in updating the exhibits that date back to 1992.

The term also appears hundreds of times in the museum’s online collections, and elsewhere. Older literature and the text of historical documents will not change, said Appelt.

Working to decolonize

Pam Gross, the executive director of the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society, welcomes the decision.

“Very pleasing. That’s wonderful,” said Gross, an Inuinnaq living in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, where the society is located.

“People around the world are starting to realize that Indigenous peoples have their own names.” 

The society is a “long-standing partner” of the museum, she added. They worked together to digitize hundreds of cultural objects belonging to Inuinnait — Inuit living in the central Canadian Arctic — that are housed in Copenhagen.

“We’re working to, in a sense, decolonize ourselves” by using the term Inuinnait and working with museums to do the same, Gross said.

“It’s nice that other big institutions are following suit.”

Pam Gross is executive director of the Pitquhirnikkut Ilihautiniq / Kitikmeot Heritage Society in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She says she is pleased with the National Museum of Denmark’s decision to stop using the term in its exhibits. (Submitted by Pam Gross)

‘Very relieved’

Juno Berthelsen, an Inuk who is originally from Greenland but lives in Denmark, hopes the museum’s actions lead to more awareness in Denmark and beyond.

“I felt very, very relieved,” he said. “That a huge institution like that made a decision of such huge importance to me.”

Berthelsen said the word was used as a racial slur toward him when he was growing up in Denmark.

“To me, personally, the word … has very negative connotations,” he said.

As an adult, he helped co-found an anti-racism group with Greenlandic students.

This summer they wrote to three Danish ice cream companies, explaining why the term is derogatory and how it connects to racist structures, he said.

“It’s been so important to me to make people aware of the colonial history and the racism … and how that word connects to that history,” Berthelsen said. “It’s not our name.”

Juno Berthelsen is an Inuk who is originally from Greenland but lives in Denmark. He says the term was used as a derogatory word toward him when he was younger. (Submitted by Juno Berthelsen)



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