The Museum of Fine Arts found itself under siege Thursday as educators, politicians, and civil-rights activists assailed the renowned institution over reports that minority students from a Dorchester middle school were subjected to racial insults and close security during a field trip.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh called the allegations “disturbing,” while City Council President Andrea Campbell decried them as “sad and unacceptable.” An official with the Boston NAACP questioned whether the 149-year-old museum, one of the country’s largest, had violated federal and state antidiscrimination law during the May 13 outing by 26 seventh-graders from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there are instances of racism and discrimination in this city,” said Jose Lopez, chairman of the education committee of the Boston NAACP. “What does surprise me is that the targets of it would be children.”
MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum said Thursday that the museum wants to be a place where individuals and communities can connect and safely express their identities.
“That’s why what happened this past week has been so hard for us,” Teitelbaum said. “Because it’s exactly counter to the kind of language, the expression of meaning and purpose we’re using when we describe the museum space.”
Museum spokeswoman Karen Frascona said the allegations are being investigated internally. An MFA official on Thursday visited the charter school to discuss what had happened, according to students and teachers.
The field trip — a reward for good grades and good behavior — left the students deeply hurt, said Marvelyne Lamy, a teacher who accompanied the group and posted about the incidents on her Facebook page.
One student, 13-year-old Corlaya Brown, said she noticed the group from the Davis academy were treated differently soon after they walked into the museum to see ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts after studying them in a Western civilization class.
Upon their arrival, Brown said, a staff member explained the rules: “No food, no drink, no watermelon.”
Then, Brown said, she and her classmates noticed security guards following them around the exhibits, telling them not to touch the artifacts and paying closer attention to them than they had to white students from other schools who were visiting the museum at the same time.
“I didn’t feel comfortable,” Brown said. “I didn’t feel safe. I felt disrespected. I felt angry.”
Her mother, Tara Brown, said her daughter came home that day asking why she and her classmates had been treated differently from other students.
Lamy, the Davis teacher, said one student overheard a patron likening the pupil to a stripper as she danced to music playing in a fashion exhibit titled “Gender Bending,” and that another visitor complained that “there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.”
Corlaya Brown said the museum officials who came to the school Thursday did not seem to take their concerns seriously.
“When they were talking, it sounded like they were nonchalant,” she said.
Walsh said he had not yet spoken with MFA officials, “but the reports that I’ve heard are disturbing.”
“We can’t have institutions in our city, in our state, in our country, being disrespectful like that,” he added. “It’s just uncalled for.”
The incident occurred amid an effort by the museum to broaden its reach to minority communities. In a 2015 interview with WBUR, museum officials said that 79 percent of their visitors were Caucasian. In addition, about 20 percent of the 700-plus member staff identified themselves as nonwhite; of those, only 14 percent were in “professional” jobs such as curators, conservators, educators, and management, according to the report.
In a 2017 series on race in Boston, the Globe Spotlight Team counted the number of patrons at the MFA on a Saturday, and found that about 4 percent of roughly 3,000 were black.
By contrast, more than 90 percent of the Davis school’s 216 students are African-American or Latino, while 95 percent of the school’s staff are people of color, said Arturo J. Forrest, the school’s principal.
In the museum’s strategic plan, unveiled two years ago as “MFA 2020,” the institution pledged to “strive to be a meeting place of world cultures — expressed locally and internationally. . . . We will honor all visitors. We will invite many voices.”
The museum fell far short of that goal last week, critics said.
“This is disgusting and disheartening,” state Senator Nick Collins of South Boston said in a tweet. “We need to listen to the experiences of young people of color. When they say they face discrimination & institutional racism daily, this is what that looks like.”
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the incident “shows just how pervasive racism is.”
“From discriminatory practices in public spaces like museums, to our criminal legal system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color, there is much work to be done to achieve real and sustainable progress toward racial justice,” she said.
Marcony Almeida Barros, chief of community engagement for the Massachusetts attorney general and a member of the Everett School Committee, also had sharp words.
“Canceling my @mfaboston membership, and no plans to be there any time soon,” he tweeted. “Apology only for racism is not enough.”
In an open letter posted Wednesday on the museum website, the MFA apologized to the students and school for “a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome. That is not who we are or want to be. Our intention is to set the highest of standards, and we are committed to doing the work that it will take to get there.”
A former employee of the museum, a nine-year staffer from Roxbury who asked not to be identified, said she was not surprised by the allegations.
“It’s been that way for years,” said the woman, who worked in member and visitor services until 2015. During her time at the MFA, she said, her department employed no Hispanics and only one black person, who was in a part-time, temporary position for six months.
The former employee said minorities who worked at the museum appeared to be limited to security, kitchen, or cleaning jobs.
“I live near the museum, I live in Boston, and the front-line staff doesn’t resemble it at all,” the woman said.
Museums, theaters, and galleries across the city have attempted to tackle racism with a wide range of approaches, from antibias training to altering the very art on display.
The Boston Center for the Arts recently hosted a two-day antiracism training in which staff members discussed the definition of white supremacy; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is hosting implicit-bias trainings for every employee throughout the spring where participants discuss structural racism.
Other organizations have emphasized outreach to students in local schools in an effort to increase the diversity of visitors. The Huntington Theatre Company, for example, partners with the Codman Academy in Dorchester and offers students free tickets to certain matinees.
Murray Whyte and Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Gal Tziperman Lotan at email@example.com; and Zoe Greenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.