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Last month, students and teachers from a predominantly black and brown school in Dorchester, Massachusetts, visited one of Boston’s whitest public spaces, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). This was a school trip intended to expose the students to its collection, but it instead taught them an institutional-racism disaster lesson. White museum goers complained about a group of “fucking Black kids in the way” and a staff member allegedly instructed the group, “No food, no drinks, no watermelon.” (Though the museum states that the staffer told the group, “No food, no drinks, no water bottles.”)
As the appalling incident garnered public attention, many expressed shock. But for Black museum goers like me, the phenomenon of being mistreated in predominantly white institutions — and the MFA’s swift reaction to a PR nightmare — are all too common. Within days, the museum issued a public apology, then announced that the racist visitors had been banned, staff had been disciplined, and that unconscious bias training was on the way. More recently, a memo, Toward a More Inclusive MFA, was posted on the institution’s website to outline the event and the museum’s next steps.
The MFA does indeed deserve credit for its crisis-management response. But its preparedness also indicates how pervasive the problem of exclusion is in the museum and art world, just as it is in other spaces. While the apologies and reactions were swift, Black museum goers like me won’t hold our breath while we wait for our curious children to stop being trailed through galleries by under-trained staff. Nor do we expect that, overnight, we will stop being told pointedly “don’t touch” at the threshold of any space exhibiting art. We know that the veneer of PR is thin, and a public apology only goes so far. We know the facts.
Fact: The MFA, not unlike many other predominantly white art institutions, has allowed a culture to fester in which its staff and visitors felt comfortable enough with their prejudice to harm group of curious black and brown students.
Fact: The change that the MFA says it seeks is a long game that should have started decades ago.
Fact: Real change requires an ability to listen to those who’ve not been heard for too long — not just when “watermelon” comments are slung their way and give the museum bad press.
As a Black museum goer, I’ve experienced the range of uncomfortable visits — from being silently trailed from one gallery to the next, to having a kind, yet overly enthusiastic docent ask me, “Is this your first time in a museum?”
As a mother, I want to trust that my child is safe during the school day — in class and during field trips. And I want to trust that there’s no room to humiliate curious children. But when cultural excursions lead children to pick cotton, or land them in the middle of a public apology as the MFA did, as adults, we are failing.
And as the director of the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas, notions of exclusion are never far from my everyday. Nor are considerations about how institutions and cultural practitioners can and should accept responsibility for the ways in which we share a range of narratives, or how we undo the telling of one story, or how we empower those who have been disempowered.
I recently attended the Tilting Axis gathering on West Indian French island Guadeloupe, where delegates from around the world gathered to look beyond trendy notions of decolonization to examine colonial-undoing as an act of empowerment. At the Memorial ACTe, the only museum in the Caribbean dedicated to the narrative of enslaved people, as artists and cultural-practitioners considered if and how sovereignty surpasses notions of decolonization, Jamaican-born Canadian artist Charles Campbell reminded the delegates: “You need to change what you do if you want to change who walks through the doors.” Campbell described how he, along with a group of Indigenous and other POC artists, prompted the board of directors of Open Space, in Victoria, British Columbia, to resign. In their recognition of the need to create a more inclusive space, the board stepped aside, making way for a new board — one which more accurately reflected the city’s diverse community.
An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation survey reported that in 2018, people of color made up 35% of museum hires, compared to 26% in 2015. Yet much of this change was observed in curatorial and education departments, with little increase in leadership positions. Artist representation in museum collections doesn’t paint a brighter picture, as illustrated by data journalist and artist, Mona Chalabi. While women of color account for 20% of the U.S. population, they only represent 1% of all of the artists in major collections, says Chalabi. As with hiring, progress towards artist representation in major cultural institutions, remains slow — and in the meantime, people of color continue to feel unwelcome in art spaces in which they are not represented.
We need to do better than that at both the societal level and the personal level. This is not a criticism of how the MFA handled racists in its building or the fallout of their actions. This is a criticism of the fact that there was even need to issue a public apology to middle-schoolers. Because when an adult apologizes to curious young person, there’s room to do better.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
In 1850, when Dr. Robert W. Gibbes commissioned J. T. Zealy to make daguerreotypes of persons held in slavery in and around Columbia, South Carolina, for Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz to use in support of his theory that African people were a separate species, daguerreotypes were at the height of fashion.
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.