Maybe it’s just me, but the Museum of Fine Arts’ 150th anniversary next year is starting to feel as festive as a ritual of self-flagellation. Its grand announcement, convened last month for both press and the museum world alike, was a solemn affair; its plans, step by step, read as unvarnished repentance. To kick things off, the museum opened “Women Take the Floor” in September , a sprawling apology for its poor performance over the decades in collecting and showing the work of women (there’s even an admission, right up there on the museum’s wall: Less than 4 percent of the 90,215 works the MFA acquired between 2008 and 2018 were by women). “Ancient Nubia Now,” a display of the MFA’s prized collection from the ancient African civilization that opened just this week, leads off by acknowledging the “racial prejudice” scholars brought to the study of Nubia from the beginning — including, it concedes, the museum’s own.
Sure, there’s a block party scheduled for next summer, with the requisite balloons and family-friendly fare. But if there’s a way to make even that event feel repentant and contrite, the MFA will surely find it. (A ceremonial egging of its façade? We shouldn’t be surprised.)
But maybe that’s just about right. Museums were born as a tool for the ruling class to establish dominance, trading outright brutality for the velvet hammer of cultural exclusion. A hundred and fifty years on, that leaves plenty to apologize for. And really, the MFA’s 150th anniversary initiatives are nothing all that new. Museums have been aware of their own waning relevance for decades, in a society shifting faster than they can hope to keep pace with. That core anxiety often left them lurching, sometimes painfully, to offer something in tune with the world outside their doors.
But in this accelerated era of #MeToo and various culture wars — over race, over nationalism, over immigration, over the 1 percent — hand-wringing and treading lightly will no longer do. Cultural leaders can’t pick a neutral corner, preaching beauty for its own sake while the world tumbles down around them. This is a time for choosing sides, and most museums worth anything surely have. The smarter ones also see the current moment ripe with as much opportunity as division — opportunity, surely, to make those all-important apologies, but to truly align with a world awash in uneasy change .
The MFA’s rites of contrition line up with peers near and far: Later this month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York will end a six-month closure after reinstalling all of its galleries with the explicit intention of broadening the story it tells about Modernism along race and gender lines. The Metropolitan Museum recently installed bronze sculptures by Wangechi Mutu, a woman artist from Kenya, as its prestigious façade commission, and later this year will give over its great hall to a commission by the Canadian Cree artist Kent Monkman.
Across the road from the MFA, the Gardner Museum made the sobering proclamation in its newly-released strategic plan that it would devote the upcoming year of programming to “issues of race, class, representation, and artistic practice in the 20th and 21st centuries.” A little farther north at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, a freshly-opened $125 million wing shades the museum’s Maritime holdings — and the acquisitive sea captains who gathered it from various far points — with explicit amends paid to the people and places from which they were taken.
Meanwhile, Harvard Art Museums has been rewriting its wall texts museum-wide to acknowledge the race and gender biases hardwired into its collection; this comes alongside a slate of new shows that explore the grim reality of forced migration and openly wonder about American icon Winslow Homer’s views on race. And the Institute of Contemporary Art, always out front with its Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, has embraced tough tales around the assault of climate change on vulnerable populations (John Akomfrah’s “Purple,” at the Watershed this year) and the global migrant crisis (the forthcoming “When Home Won’t Let You Stay”).
Stacked up one by one, the whole thing feels unrelenting, like a a permanent, penitent chorus, sung in harmony, museum to museum. . But there’s brand leverage here, too. Harnessing the MFA’s anniversary as a pivot-point is strategic, surely. Taking the position that, a century and a half on, there’s less cause for celebration than atonement scores all kinds of points with a broader public awaking every day to stories of social bias and inequities enforced by the ruling order.
This is hardly a cynical exercise. Anniversaries, like birthdays, are strangely trivial things, a number to which arbitrary significance is routinely attached. To its credit, the MFA chose to freight its sesquicentennial with real meaning — a point of departure that’s strategic and sincere in equal measure.
Whatever its appearances, this is hardly the flip of a switch for the MFA or anyone else. In my own short time here — November marks my first anniversary at the Boston Globe — I’ve been moved by many of the museum’s clear-minded gestures toward equitable themes. The best — and really only — way to do this without seeming cloying or tokenistic is through powerful displays that speak for themselves, and the MFA has had plenty. Candice Breitz’s “Love Story” used the celebrity sheen of Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore as a vessel for a slate of stories told, firsthand, by refugees (the museum now owns the piece, a multichannel video). Bouchra Khalili’s “22 Hours,” a serious and meditative video work, connected Boston’s young African-American activist community to its forbears in the Black Panther Party. One of the museum’s biggest recent productions, “Gender Bending Fashion,” embraced fashion as the lingua franca of race and gender identity where words fail, as they so often do. The exhibition broke open the institution for a whole new audience who previously felt left out.
These are just recent examples of a museum that’s been quietly rebuilding itself for years. Quietly, though, appears not to be enough: Recent racist incidents, which included older museum patrons using degrading language toward minority students who came to the MFA on a school trip, left a stain on an institution in a state of slow reinvention.
The museum can’t be blamed for the shameful behavior of its patrons (though it did hold them accountable, issuing to the offenders a permanent ban). But the feeling that lingered — this is a place for some, not all — made clear how much work is left to be done, quickly and at full volume. And so here we are, on the cusp of a circumspect sesquicentennial of contrition. The museum stands with its peers, speaking unequivocally and out loud, seeking not just forgiveness, but a path forward.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte