Students Encounter the ‘Weep and Sting” of Racism at Boston Museum

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According to the website of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, it offers “innovative programs for students and teachers that encourage exploration of the MFA’s world-renowned collections and groundbreaking exhibitions.” However, a group of African American and Latino honor students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy had a different experience—they left their museum visit on May 16, 2019, in tears, shock and anger after being subjected to racial profiling, derogatory remarks from white patrons and negative encounters with the museum’s staff.

This story went viral on Monday, May 19th, as the result of a Facebook post by their 7th grade language arts teacher Marvalyne Lamy. Frankly, I was both outraged and livid when I read about it. Ms. Lamy’s account was based on reports from her students, as well as what she witnessed. The details are shocking and shameful: The students said they were “welcomed” to the museum by a staff person who told them “no food, no drink, no watermelon.” They said they were followed around by security staff and told not to touch artifacts that were being handled by white students from another school—white students who had no security guards following them around. In addition, on two separate occasions, they were subjected to verbal abuse by white patrons of the museum.

Seeing how upset her students were becoming, Ms. Lamy cut the visit short. But before she left the museum, she said she reported the incidents to the museum’s staff. Ms. Lamy told the media the employee she spoke with offered pity and free tickets to bring the students back on another occasion so that they could have a “better experience.”

The museum’s recently appointed Chief of Learning and Community Engagement, Makeeba McCreary, Ed.D., told the media that she spoke to the school’s principal on the day of the incident and both sides agreed to launch an investigation. However, it took the spread of Ms. Lamy’s Facebook post to trigger the museum’s public action in response to the storm of reaction.

Once news media inquiries began, the museum posted on its website an open letter of apology to the students, which was signed by its seven-member leadership team. They wrote that they were “extremely troubled to learn” about “a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome.” I would call “challenging and unacceptable” the understatement of the year. I fiercely agree with Boston Globe Op-ed columnist Renee Graham, who wrote in the paper: “What was inflicted on these children of color was blatant racism. To call the devil by any other name is to deny its feral existence… For years, these children and their teachers will bear memories of what should have been a joyous class trip like a scar. And it will always weep and sting like a fresh wound.”

The incident was further complicated by the results of the museum’s investigation, which was posted as an update on its website on Friday, May 24th. The investigation identified the white patrons who verbally abused the students as museum members and announced that their memberships would be revoked and they would be served with a “no trespass cease-and-desist” notifications. Regarding the students’ allegations about the reference to “no watermelons,” the museum reported they were told their employee relayed stand operating procedures of “no food, no drink and no water bottles.” And the museum found that instead of profiling the students, the guards were just changing shifts. According to media reports, MFA, Boston’s Ann and Graham Gund Director Matthew Teitelbaum will visit with the students in the coming week.

MFA, Boston is not the only museum that has the problem of an “unwelcoming environment’—it’s just the latest poster child. Boston is about 55-percent white and 45-percent people of color. Only 14-percent of MFA, Boston’s professional staff—curators, conservators, educators and other top leadership—are nonwhite. Close to 80% of their annual visitors are white. The museum did not make public information about its Board of Directors. Two years ago, it unveiled a strategic plan titled MFA 2020, to mark the 150th anniversary of its founding. The plan strives for more inclusivity through the diversification of its staff, new programming and free, family memberships for newly naturalized U.S. citizens. But what does it do in the interim? The reported behavior is a reflection of the culture of ignorance, disregard and disrespect that is currently poisoning American society. How can the museum transform this situation from poison into medicine?

It’s both tragic and ironic that the events with the students occurred just 13 months after the profiling of two African-American men at a Philadephia Starbucks, which led to their arrest. On May 29, 2018, Starbucks closed 8,000 stores to discuss racial bias and the importance of respecting all people. At the time, I wrote in Arts & Culture Connection:

 I have experienced the successful impact of arts initiatives used to engage different communities on the issues of class and race. I believe the arts, which universally touch       people’s    lives, have the power to transcend the issues that separate us. But I also know that the arts are only one frontier needed to tame this tempest. To create a culture of diversity requires that diversity education and discussions about race take place in every sector of American society.

Especially in our cultural institutions. And that’s why I think after meeting with the students, MFA, Boston needs to take courageous and bold action, such as following Starbucks’ example—close its doors for a day or two, and openly and honestly dialogue with every member of the staff—hourly, salaried and professional; members of the Board of Directors; the entire executive leadership team, and even the docents—about race, the impact racism has on everyone and what it means to make the museum an open, welcoming and inclusive environment. They could further take the lead by sponsoring community-based dialogues with their members and non-members.

As a consultant who has engaged in diversity training for cultural institutions and nonprofit organizations for more than 30 years, I believe this would not only be a good first step, but a phenomenal example to the students of what it means to take responsibility for the pain caused by the museum staff’s actions. It demonstrates to them that the museum is not only aware, but also sensitive and committed to ensuring that change will occur so that no other group of students of color will ever have to endure this type of humiliation. What’s most important is that every single person who is connected with MFA, Boston will be held accountable for what happens once a patron enters those hallowed halls. Future behavior will be the only real indicator of how much has changed.