Museums, as anyone who works in them and loves them will tell you, are meant to be about enlightenment, safe spaces where the best of humanity’s achievements across cultures and eras are placed on equal footing. They’re supposed to remove divisions and help craft something that looks like understanding. That’s what made a recent class trip to the Museum of Fine Arts so chilling: Students from the largely minority Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy reported being targeted by racist language from an MFA staff member, then closely followed by security and viciously denigrated with racist remarks from two patrons.
Offhand horrors like this, sadly, happen all the time. But of all places, here?
“We want to be a conscious place where identity is expressed and the connections between individuals and communities are negotiated,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, the museum’s director. “That’s why what happened this past week has been so hard for us. It’s not painful because I have trouble acknowledging that this exists. It’s painful because I had hoped we were further along than this.”
Teitelbaum spoke on Thursday after an all-staff meeting, with an internal investigation in full swing. Under fire, the museum moved quickly to share its results Friday: That the standard visitor briefing, which an employee recalled giving to the students, included “no food, no drink and no water bottles” in the galleries (students reported hearing “no watermelon”); the museum acknowledged “there is no way to definitively confirm or deny what was said or heard in the galleries.” It said guards “went on and off break and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area or another,” making it understandable yet unacceptable that the students felt overly policed — something it aims to address with new security procedures. Finally, it identified and issued bans against the patrons who made racist remarks, revoking their memberships, and will serve them with no-trespass orders.
Reactions to the MFA’s decisions will no doubt be mixed. For some, it won’t be enough — what could be, when dealing with the lasting damage done to innocent young minds? At the same time the students’ experience tore open an old wound that museums have been trying to knit for decades, with scant success. How do you transform institutions that, on the whole, were founded on notions of elitism and division from the very start?
Teitelbaum sees this as a gut-check moment. “I really believe our articulation of meaning, our position of value in our community is exactly the opposite” of what happened with the school group, Teitelbaum said. “But this moment forces us to make that conviction real. It makes us have to more consistently and more purposefully live our values. If I take anything away from the conversations I’ve had with staff today it’s that we want to do that, that we are imperfect, and we need to find a way to hold each other accountable and raise our standards.”
There’s a bitter irony here. Teitelbaum came to the MFA in August 2015 from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, which is the most diverse city in the world (more than half its citizens are minorities). In his final years there, he transformed a stodgy institution into one that reflected the world outside its doors.
The MFA’s first strategic plan on his watch, MFA 2020, made a priority of reaching out to audiences beyond its traditional core of the white, upper-middle class. You can see why. According to the MFA, 81 percent of its visitors over a five-year span ending in 2018 were white; in 2015, 75 percent were 45 or older. And the city’s history of racial conflict is well-known, a blight on its reputation for years.
“The strategic plan was built in recognition of this challenge in this community,” Teitelbaum said. “It’s a living plan that is about invitation, welcome, engagement, and belonging. And we’re invested in it. That’s why all of this is so hard to hear. But this is hard work, and we know that.”
Bringing diversity to the museum’s staff, and to its galleries, is a core element of the plan, and the MFA has made steps. Teitelbaum has begun to diversify the museum’s curatorial ranks, a traditionally white-dominated realm. Akili Tommasino, who is Caribbean-American, was hired as associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2018; Layla Bermeo, who is Latina, became an assistant curator of American painting in September 2016.
Exhibitions have also reflected the agenda. This year, the MFA opened Bouchra Khalili’s “22 Hours,” a video piece about the Black Panther Party’s alliance with Jean Genet and its Bostonian connection. The recent “Collecting Stories: Native American Art” was bluntly self-critical of the museum’s dubious history showing Native American culture. “Love Story,” commissioned from South African artist Candice Breitz, was a critical take on the global refugee crisis. And in a bleak and twisted paradox, one student was allegedly chided with a racist, classist remark inside “Gender Bending Fashion,” the museum’s boldest advocation yet for the power of difference and inclusion.
This isn’t the first time Teitelbaum has had to apologize for cultural insensitivity at the MFA. The museum’s controversial “Kimono Wednesdays” program, which was launched under previous MFA director Malcolm Rogers, sparked charges of cultural appropriation from some in the Asian community. It was over before he got there, but the damage lingered. Teitelbaum convened a public forum at the museum in 2016 to discuss the issue, where members of the Asian community openly expressed their concerns, and disgust.
It all speaks to the volumes of work that the MFA, and any museum, has to do to unwind the deep colonial roots from which these institutions have sprung. All museums worth going to, including the MFA, have been trying to broaden their traditionally narrowcast point of view. Museums, remember, are relatively new themselves, a product of the European colonial era. They were born in the 19th century from the collecting whims of the very wealthy eager to show off things gathered (and often outright stolen) from faraway cultures to their just-as-wealthy friends.
Racism, in other words, was built in from the start: Trinkets and baubles of a distant, unknowable exotic, neatly arranged on a shelf. While the objects collected spurred academic exploration as museums grew, their display also deepened divisions: A Western “civilized” aesthetic fetishized tribal cultures the world over as primitive, animist, less-evolved.
Museums reflected the culture in which they were born, but they also contributed to it. Enlightenment was cast as an exclusively European pursuit — the Renaissance, the Baroque, Impressionism, and so on — while art objects from non-European cultures were put under glass. They suggested cultures preserved, either dead or dying, as the colonial wheel turned, their bits and pieces salvaged as artifacts of a time now past.
Imagine, then, if you’re a kid of African descent, or South Asian, or Native American. Until very recently, a museum, to you, would feel at best like a tomb — a repository of a violent effort to erase your heritage, and negate its value as something contemporary, civilized, worthy of continuing. Museums are places where marginalized cultures have generationally felt not only unrepresented, but cast as either lesser or simply defunct. Is it any wonder that a 2017 Spotlight investigation found that only about 4 percent of MFA visitors on a Saturday in September were African-American?
Needless to say, the students’ experience does little to counter those long-held perceptions, something Teitelbaum clearly feels in his bones. “I believe that as a leader I have to be more insistent on the values this institution stands for,” he said. “Community, civility, and citizenship are very important words to me. They are values of what we can become — a place that honors and creates that.” And when the museum fails to do that, Teitelbaum is frank. “We have to create a culture of accountability when there are transgressions,” he said.
Contemporary museums have had to swim hard upstream to shift old perceptions, and incidents like this don’t help. Some institutions have tried grand gestures: The Baltimore Museum of Art last year sold several high-profile pieces (by Andy Warhol and others) to acquire works by women and minority artists who, as in almost any collection, are woefully underrepresented there. Harvard Art Museums is rewriting all the public labels for works in its collection to reflect a more complete truth. A portrait of Nicholas Boylston, for example, now has a label saying he “amassed a fortune sending enslaved Africans and foreign goods to the Americas.”
The MFA’s approach has been more incremental, more subtle, slowly shifting staff demographics and programming while outwardly signaling its commitment to inclusion with gestures like free membership for all newly-minted American citizens. That gesture says it wants the difference they bring to this country inside its walls, which, in this fractious time, is no small thing.
But like any museum, there’s something in the DNA that still needs fixing: a sense of ownership and entitlement from a generation clinging with violent desperation to an old version of the world, which should sound familiar to a country two years into a Donald Trump presidency.
“A comment was made in the all-staff [meeting] about the fractured time in which we live, and the way in which certain behaviors are given permission by leadership,” Teitelbaum said. “My response to that is to say that’s exactly the value of the museum space, which is a place that creates civility, that creates community, that creates a sense of citizenship, all in the context of belonging.”
But the students’ experience was unequivocally not that.
“They experienced something, they lost something, that I may never be able to give them back,” Teitelbaum said. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow thinking about how I can do better — how do I get better results, how do I hire differently, how do I use my words to encourage differently? I have agency to do that. But no one should ever have to experience what they did.”