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The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC (photo by Lynn Allen via Flickr)

A letter penned by a group of concerned former staff and board members of the Smithsonian Institution denounces issues of racial discrimination at its National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington, DC. Addressed to Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, who last year became the first Black person to head the institution, it expresses “outrage” over a lack of Black representation at the museum and a pervasive “culture of racism” that has gone largely unheeded.

“Despite the diversity of the United States of America, NMAfA has recruited, retained and promoted a predominantly White staff,” the letter reads. “In 2020, there are only five full-time Black employees on a staff of over 40. There are no Black curators in a museum solely dedicated to the arts and culture of Africa.”

A former employee and one of the letter’s authors, who spoke to Hyperallergic on the condition of anonymity, said they experienced constant bullying, degrading comments, and racial bias on the job. At one meeting, they recounted, a senior white colleague asked them “not to lynch her.”

“Upon joining the museum, I learned quickly and early that the hiring manager involved in the search process had preferred a white candidate who already worked at museum,” they added. “During the time I was there they made it very difficult for me to do my job. They bullied me, undermined my work, and favored this other white employee by giving her public praise for tasks that were my job.”

When they brought the incidents to human resources, they were encouraged to “talk things through and wait until things improved, but there was never a commitment to change things.”

The letter’s writers claim that over 10 former and current Black employees have “reported or experienced incidents of racial bias, hostile verbal attacks, retaliation, terminations, microaggressions and degrading comments.” They also demand the resignation of the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, Christine Mullen Kreamer, whom they allege has had multiple complaints of racism, aggression, and mismanagement filed against her.

The group, which has posted its letter publicly under the Instagram account @changenmafa, outlines a series of immediate demands for Secretary Bunch in order to build “an equitable and inclusive museum.” These include improving career advancement opportunities and developing a pay equity plan for Black employees; reviewing terminations and dismissals of former Black staff as well as racially-driven complaints in the last five years; and reforming NMAfA’s hiring practices to consider a “diverse pool of applicants,” including in its search for a new director to replace Mullen Kreamer.

“What’s even more disturbing is that there’s never been a willingness to change things,” said the former staffer who spoke to Hyperallergic. “If we hadn’t written this letter it would have just been ignored. I think it speaks to the challenge of addressing systemic racism. It’s imperative that the administration work with the museum’s director and staff to come up with a real plan of action.”

NMAfA is one of 19 museums comprising the Smithsonian Institution, a government entity that also includes the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which Bunch led before his appointment as secretary. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that “there is no room for racism at the Smithsonian” and pledged to look “get to the bottom” of the former staff’s complaints.

“Too many times, I was the only Black person in the room and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore,” Bunch said.

A spokesperson for the NMAfA told Hyperallergic that the museum is “cognizant of the need to recruit, employ and empower more curators and artists that represent diverse fields and backgrounds.”

“While our collections and exhibits represent a rich diversity of thought, artists and scholarship, we recognize that we must continue to increase diversity within the museum, and drive inclusive behavior among all Smithsonian staff,” they continued, adding:

As a federal entity, we have established policies and processes in place to review employee complaints, and other human resources matters.  Museum supervisors receive training and must abide by government wide federal regulations. At the Smithsonian, not only do we adhere to these rules — fairness and equity are core to our culture, mission and who we are as a leader in the museum field.

A spokesperson from @changenmafa said that the group has not received a formal response from the leadership of the Smithsonian.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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