Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has revoked the membership of and banned two patrons who allegedly made racist remarks to a group of students of color visiting the museum on a school field trip.
The MFA announced the punishment Friday afternoon, after previously apologizing to the students.
The MFA has been under public scrutiny for the incident, which has sparked a wider conversation about how welcoming — or not — cultural institutions are to people of color.
Boston's MFA said it conducted an investigation that involved reviewing extensive video footage and interviewing dozens of employees and visitors. A museum statement said that the MFA had "recreated the group’s entire three-hour visit."
The group of middle-schoolers from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy Charter Public School visited the museum on May 16. Chaperones decided to cut the field trip short after students reported being profiled, harassed and insulted.
Teacher Marvelyne Lamy says the students — all kids of color — were followed by guards who seemed hyper-vigilant around her kids but seemingly lax with other, white student groups. When one Davis student was moved to dance at the "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition, Lamy said a visitor said, “It’s a shame that she is not learning and instead stripping.”
Just before they left the MFA, as the students stood near an entrance, Lamy and most of her group heard a woman walk by and loudly exclaim, “Never mind, there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.” Some students also reported hearing a museum employee tell them that no food, drink or watermelons were allowed. (A watermelon is a common racist trope.)
After the investigation, the museum served no-trespass, cease-and-desist letters to two visitors whom the museum said used "offensive and inappropriate language when they came into contact with the students." In an interview Friday evening, MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum said the visitor whom the kids heard say "[expletive] black kids" has admitted to saying the expletive in front of the kids because she felt blocked. Teitelbaum said that it was "evident there was more than that."
In another instance, video footage revealed that one of the students who'd begun dancing at the "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition became "very visibly distraught" after another museum visitor approached her and spoke to her. Teitelbaum described it as a "deeply confrontational exchange that took place."
In both cases, there was no audio recordings to confirm the substance of what the visitors told the kids, but Teitelbaum said there was "credible visual evidence that something horrible had happened."
As for the watermelon remark, the MFA's report states that the staff member who greeted the students recalled saying that “no food, no drink and no water bottles” were allowed in the galleries. Teitelbaum said the staff member was a work study who has since left the country.
"There is no way to definitively confirm or deny what was said or heard in the galleries," the statement reads.
Regardless, Teitelbaum said the MFA will provide training for all front-line staff to ensure their tone is welcoming.
"For example, 'We don't take water bottles into the galleries because it actually isn't great for the work of art,' is better than saying, 'Our rule is no water bottles,' " he said. "So the notion of how you frame the welcome, how you use your words to create a sense of inclusiveness rather than restriction is so important."
The MFA also said that it is understandable the students felt followed by the 13 guards who were on-duty at the exhibitions the children visited. The guards, according to the MFA, went off and on break and "overlapped as they moved from one area or another."
The report states it was not the guards' intention to police the students or follow them closely.
Lamy, one of the teachers who chaperoned the trip, said it was clear they were being followed more closely than other patrons.
“It’s just so disheartening to know that this was a very real experience for you and there were security guards that literally made you feel you did not belong in a place you wanted to take your kids to,” Lamy said. “For them to say no evidence of security guards following us is a slap in the face.”
Teitelbaum said the museum will also mandate new training for guards to ensure their actions make people feel welcome.
Teitelbaum added the MFA did not conduct an investigation to substantiate what the students said, but instead to implement consequences.
"They felt disrespected. They felt as though they were racially profiled. When someone says that, they must be right, which is to say they must have had an experience that made them feel as though they didn't belong," Teitelbaum said. "I would never start with an assumption of 'prove it,' but I would say let us find out whether or not we can establish the facts so we can be consistent in the consequences."
The incident has sparked a wider, old conversation about how encyclopedic museums — rooted in European colonialism — can now transform into institutions that reflect communities outside their walls. Museums like the 150-year-old MFA were commonly created by wealthy white people hungry to display their findings from across the world — often fetishizing or diminishing other cultures.
"It is a founding circumstance that most of our older and longer serving museums were founded by fairly homogeneous leaders in communities that came from a certain class, came from a certain race," said Teitelbaum. "I get that. I mean, that is demonstrably so. The great adventure of museums which is consistent with their founding, is that they belong to everyone. How that happens is the great journey."
This article was originally published on May 24, 2019.
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