In Brief

After Students Report Racist Incidents, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts​ ​Bans Two Patrons and Plans Unconscious Bias Training

After middle school students and faculty reported four racist encounters at the museum, the institution launched an investigation into the claims, including reports that the students were profiled by security guards.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Friday, May 24, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston ended its investigation into a series of racist incidents reported by a group of middle school students. The seventh graders described prejudiced remarks and actions made by MFA staff and patrons during a school trip to the museum.

On May 22, the museum issued an apology to a group of 30 seventh graders from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy and announced plans to review its policies and investigate the students and school faculty’s claims.

According to the MFA’s followup statement on May 24, the museum concluded the investigation after “reviewing extensive video footage, conducting in-depth interviews with staff and visitors, and collaborating with the school.”

The museum says it will issue “no-trespass, cease-and-desist letters to two visitors who used offensive and inappropriate language when they came into contact with the students.” It will also implement updated “protocols and procedures for frontline staff and guards, articulating our expectations for visitor, staff and volunteer behavior, and enhancing ongoing training for all staff and volunteers.” The museum says it has recruited “outside experts” to develop “mandatory unconscious bias training, conflict resolution training, and sexual harassment training for all staff.” The MFA added that “the Museum is reviewing all visitor touchpoints to ensure that every visitor’s experience from entry to exit is positive and welcoming.”

On Monday, May 20, Marvelyne Lamy, a seventh-grade English teacher who attended the trip, detailed the students’ experiences in a Facebook post. She says a seventh-grade girl was chastised for dancing to music in the museum’s Gender Bending exhibition by another patron, and was accused of “stripping,” rather than learning.  Lamy says another woman pronounced, “Never mind there’s fucking Black kids in the way,” after seeing the students standing in the doorway of an African exhibit.

Lamy says she reported the incidents prior to leaving the museum, but did not receive an apology at the time and was instead offered tickets to return. She ended her Facebook status by saying: “I will not stop until action is taken and people are held accountable.”

“It’s an unfortunate lesson to learn but inevitably it’s something we all go through as people of color,” Arturo J. Forrest, the academy’s principal, told the Boston Globe. The academy models its curriculum based on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), with a focus on college and career preparation and cultural empowerment. Ninety percent of its students are Black or Latinx, and all the students on the trip to the MFA were students of color.

According to the museum’s statement, the MFA says that after identifying the patrons who made racist remarks toward the children, the MFA revoked their membership and banned them from the museum. They also plan to “serve them with a no-trespass cease-and-desist notification.”

Students also reported that one MFA staffer told them “no food, no drink, and no watermelon” while explaining museum rules. In Friday’s statement, the MFA said that the museum employee says they relayed to the group: “no food, no drink and no water bottles.”

“There is no way to definitively confirm or deny what was said or heard in the galleries,” the MFA asserts in the statement. “Regardless, the MFA is committed to providing additional training for all frontline staff on how to engage with incoming school groups about policies and guidelines. These guidelines are in place to ensure the comfort and safety of all visitors and staff, as well as the protection of objects in our care.”

Lamy says that she witnessed students being profiled during their time at the museum, with museum security trailing them while ignoring white students. “It wasn’t subtle,” Lamy told the Boston Globe. “It was blatant, in your face: ‘We’re going to watch every step you take.’”

The museum, however, says: “That was not our intention.”

“During this time, guards went on and off break and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area or another. Based on surveillance footage, it is understandable that, because of this movement, the students felt followed,” the museum continues.

“It is unacceptable that they felt racially profiled, targeted and harassed,” the MFA says. “In response, the MFA is taking a number of steps to adapt security procedures — specifically designed to make sure that all people feel welcome, safe and respected at the Museum. This includes additional training for guards in how they engage with visitors inside and outside the Museum, as well as reviewing how guards are instructed to patrol the galleries.”

Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the MFA, said in a press statement that he has requested to meet with students at the school next week. “These young people left the Museum feeling disrespected, harassed and targeted because of the color of their skin, and that is unacceptable,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem that we will address as an institution, both with immediate steps and long-term commitments. I am deeply saddened that we’ve taken something away from these students that they will never get back.”

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