opinion | Hiawatha Bray

Everyone is welcome at the museum

Vincenzo Danti's "Saint Luke (Patron Saint of Artists)" on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.
AP/file 2002
Vincenzo Danti's "Saint Luke (Patron Saint of Artists)" on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I’ve never met Michelle Obama, and judging by one of her recent speeches, it’s her fault.

While speaking at the dedication of the new Whitney Museum in New York, the first lady suggested that visits to art museums didn’t play much of a part in her upbringing.

“I guarantee you that right now,” Obama said, “there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum. And growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s and ‘70s, I was one of those kids myself. So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.”


It’s hard to imagine that someone as smart and attractive as her would ever feel unwelcome at an art museum. Or is it that she’s black? Well, me, too, and I practically camped out at the Art Institute of Chicago during my teen years. If Obama had felt a bit more welcome there, we might have met and maybe hit it off, and thereby subtly changed the future of the world. Or not.

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After all, I’m seven years older. But like her, I’m a product of Chicago’s South Side — one of four kids born to a Mississippi mother and an Arkansas father, refugees from the perils and miseries of Jim Crow. Neither of them finished high school, but they scraped up the cash to get us into Catholic schools.

We learned the usual lessons: a wary distrust of any white person not wearing a clerical collar or a nun’s habit, and a habitual avoidance of anyone wearing a badge. Chicago was a famously racist place in those days; simply straying onto the wrong side of the Dan Ryan Expressway could earn a black man a beating, or worse.

So if ever there was a family that ought to have felt intimidated by the great bronze lions on Michigan Avenue, it was ours. Yet it never happened that way. There were the grand nuns of old St. Ambrose, for one thing. They were determined that we should know everything. So they hauled us off to museums, libraries, even a gorgeous old synagogue once.

As for my parents, they regarded all knowledge with unabashed reverence. Upon signing me up at St. Ambrose, one of the nuns told my mother that she’d spelled my name wrong — to this day, it’s wrong on my birth certificate. Mama wasn’t the least embarrassed or defensive. She’d come in search of knowledge for her child, and she learned something herself in the process — a bonus. She cheerfully thanked the nun, and I instantly became Hiawatha.


That was the family attitude about knowledge — you grabbed it with both hands, from anyplace you could get it. Schools, churches, libraries, or museums. My folks didn’t know a thing about Rembrandt or Grant Wood or Edward Hopper. But they knew that there was wisdom inside the Art Institute, and that was all they needed to know. There was no hesitation, and certainly no warning about the disdainful glances that might be cast our way. Who cares what the white man thinks, anyway? The door is open. Go inside.

All this is by way of saying that at no time in my impoverished and race-divided past did I learn to feel intimidated or out of place at a museum. Where did Michelle Obama ever learn such a thing? Beats me.

But she’s surely right that lots of minority kids have picked up exactly that attitude, somewhere along the way. A 2010 study from the American Association of Museums confirms that black and Hispanic-Americans spend a lot less time at museums than whites. One likely reason, it found: “a distinct cultural psychology among African-Americans, rooted in historical and social experience, which has produced heightened sensitivity to stereotypes and real or perceived racism.”

So, just as the first lady suggested, there’s work to be done at the museums to make them more attractive and welcoming places. And less expensive, too, with more free admission days. But there’s also plenty of work to be done by teachers, and parents, especially parents who’ve never gone to museums themselves. They likely never felt they belonged in such places, and passed a legacy of anxiety and unease to their kids.

To parents and kids, a suggestion: Forget your fears, and just go. Try pretending you’re tourists; then you won’t mind so much if people look at you funny. But they probably won’t. Indeed, the other visitors probably won’t look at you at all. Their eyes will be drawn elsewhere, to the marvels hanging all around them. I hope that’s also where you’ll be looking. And then you’ll realize you belong there, every bit as much as the first lady.

Hiawatha Bray writes the Globe’s Tech Lab column.



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