fb-pixel

At the MFA, a new way to welcome school groups in response to racial incident

Educators and roundtable participants were guided through the updated school group entrance at the MFA Wednesday.
Educators and roundtable participants were guided through the updated school group entrance at the MFA Wednesday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday introduced a new way of welcoming school groups, part of its ongoing response to allegations that a group of minority middle-school students were subjected to racism during a spring field trip there.

The museum has overhauled its pre-visit interactions with students, as well as the way school groups move through the museum once they arrive.

Starting this month, teachers will fill out a questionnaire, and students will be able to watch a nuts-and-bolts video before visiting. The video, featuring two teenagers of color, details what to expect on a field trip at the MFA, down to the door students will use to enter and the type of bin they will drop their backpacks into. The museum is also planning to hire “gallery hosts” who will be stationed throughout the exhibits to answer questions and offer insights. And it will introduce a hotline that school groups can call inside the museum if they have problems.

“Pretty quickly after I got here, I had some noticings and wondered where the diversity was in our visitors and our audience,” said Makeeba McCreary, chief of learning and community engagement at the MFA, at a preview of the changes for educators and reporters on Wednesday.

Advertisement



The group watched a pre-visit video designed to help familiarize students and group organizers with teh MFA.
The group watched a pre-visit video designed to help familiarize students and group organizers with teh MFA.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

McCreary joined the museum in January and was quickly called upon to respond to citywide uproar over allegations of racism within the institution. She has led the redesign of how school groups make their way through the museum. Many of the changes were based on feedback she gathered at a series of roundtable conversations about race with teachers and arts educators in the spring.

“We took those insights, and we turned them into actionable interventions,” McCreary said.

The MFA was thrust into an unwelcome spotlight in May after a group of seventh-graders from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester said they experienced a string of racist insults at the elite institution: They said they were greeted by a staffer who described the museum’s rules as “no food, no drink, no watermelon,” and were tracked closely by security guards while a nearby group of white students wandered freely. (The museum said the employee who greeted the students recalled issuing the standard greeting of “no food, no drink, no water bottles.”) One patron likened a student to a stripper and another complained of “[expletive] black kids in the way.”

Advertisement



After a teacher wrote about the incident on Facebook, the museum publicly apologized, launched an internal review, and banned two patrons who made racist comments. Faced with the enormous task of shifting the culture of a museum where the majority of patrons are white, the museum’s leaders have chosen to focus on specific procedures that might make the institution feel more accessible to students of color on a daily basis.

Those changes drew praise from some educators who had offered feedback at the roundtable conversations in the spring.

“Everybody was talking about how people come here and the kids don’t know and the teachers don’t know how to approach things and get help and feel isolated,” said Nia Burke, a member of the black caucus at the Boston Teachers’ Union, who attended a roundtable in the spring. Burke said the museum’s overhauled welcome, with the pre-visit video, “captured everything we basically talked about.”

Advertisement



Makeeba McCreary, Chief of Learning and Community Engagement for the MFA, led a group of educators and members of the public through the new procedures for welcoming student groups.
Makeeba McCreary, Chief of Learning and Community Engagement for the MFA, led a group of educators and members of the public through the new procedures for welcoming student groups. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Adrianne Jordan, chair of the black caucus at the teachers union and a third-grade teacher at the Charles Sumner in Roslindale, agreed.

“Wow,” Jordan said. “I’m so proud. I would love to come here more and more. And to bring kids.”

The new pre-visit video included introductions to two security guards, the most diverse group of employees at the museum, who previously said they had been mistreated and ignored.

“The guards are very helpful and knowledgeable,” one of the teenagers in the video says. “Did you know many of them are also artists? Say hi!”

Some students who were on the Davis Academy field trip remain hurt by their experience and have been unimpressed with the museum’s response, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is representing five families and an educator from the school. None of those people were involved in developing the new procedures for school groups, said Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights.

“The museum has not seen fit to include the students themselves in this process,” Sellstrom said. “The young men and women who suffered discrimination at the hands of the MFA have once again been relegated to the sidelines.”

When asked about the group’s claim, McCreary paused.

“Hmm,” she said. “I actually think that they had a lot to do with the input that we had into these procedures.”

The specifics of what exactly happened on the May field trip, and its broader implications for the MFA, remain under investigation. In June, Attorney General Maura Healey opened a civil rights investigation, and the museum also hired former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger to undertake a separate, external investigation. Both are ongoing.

Advertisement



Lawyers for Civil Rights said the MFA has so far not responded to all of the requests put forth by some students in the wake of the incident, particularly that the museum fund mental health services at Davis Academy and issue a “public, meaningful, and comprehensive apology” to the students. McCreary declined to address those issues, citing the two investigations.

Overall, educators seemed to see the new school policies as useful, a starting point for changing the way students of color experience the museum.

“It’s a good attempt at trying to create a different atmosphere for school groups,” said Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, a creative consultant who used to be the director of arts, culture and enrichment at Davis Academy. She recommended that in addition to sending a pre-visit questionnaire, the museum should also reach out to students after a field trip to gauge how it went, asking them questions such as, “Did you feel comfortable? Did you feel that you were treated the same as every other patron? Is there something that you really liked about the visit?”

Robinson-Goodnight said she trusted that McCreary was the right person to help make the museum more inclusive, but added, “I know that it’s going to take time.”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.

Advertisement