For some of the seventh graders from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester, last Thursday was their first time inside the Museum of Fine Arts.
The field trip was a reward for the group of more than two dozen students for good behavior and good grades. This year, they had had been exploring different cultures and learning about Greek mythology. This trip was an opportunity to get a firsthand look at some of the art and culture reflected in their lessons.
Instead, Marvelyne Lamy, a seventh-grade language arts teacher who chaperoned the trip, alleged that she watched as security guards profiled and followed her class — made up of all students of color — from gallery to gallery.
She said her students noticed the stares right away. She said guards seemed hyper-vigilant with her students, while seemingly lax with other groups of white students. A student who was briefly dancing to music playing inside the MFA’s "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition later told Lamy she heard someone say “it’s a shame that she is not learning and instead stripping.” And just before they left the MFA as they stood near an entrance, Lamy and most of her group heard a woman walk by and loudly exclaim, “Never mind there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.”
In an interview on Thursday, Lamy said the students walked out of the museum crying, really angry and some simply silent after being exposed to the harsh reality of blatant racism.
At that moment, Lamy said all she wanted from museum staff was an apology. What she got, she claims, were looks of pity and an offer of free tickets to return for a “better experience.” She said the most frustrating part was the feeling that they didn’t believe her and had no plans of doing anything.
“This is mind boggling, that it's 2019,” Lamy said. “And I can come into an establishment and my skin color speaks for me before I even get to walk in and introduce myself and say who I am.”
The apology Lamy wanted from the MFA came nearly a week after the incidents, in an open letter signed by seven top museum officials, including Director Matthew Teitelbaum and chief of staff Kristin Ferguson.
“Last week, a number of students on an organized visit encountered a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome,” the letter read. “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.”
Lamy said a museum official called the school and talked to the principal on Monday, the same day Lamy wrote a Facebook post about the experience that has been shared nearly 1,000 times. At least one comment disputed one of the students’ allegations.
Lamy said upon arrival at the museum, someone gave students an overview of the rules and told them “no food, no drink and no watermelon.” An individual online said it was a misunderstanding and that what they actually said was “no water bottles.”
Makeeba McCreary, the Patti & Jonathan Kraft chief of learning and community engagement at the MFA, said the allegations remain under investigation. She said she was briefed about the alleged mistreatment half an hour after it occurred and contacted school administrators soon after. Both agreed to collect data and follow up with an in-person meeting slated for Thursday.
“The conversation really will be focused on what do we do to move forward,” McCreary said. “How do we make sure that this is a welcoming environment? That our children in the city of Boston, our students, in our Boston public schools and beyond, our teachers, our families walk in the door and immediately are aware that this is their museum.”
As one of the newest employees on the leadership team — and one of the few professionals of color — McCreary said she’s committed to seeing the MFA improve in this arena through programming, education and authentic discussion with peer institutions.
“We've had some very explicit conversations about racism, about inclusion and about solutions and getting to proactive next steps,” she said. “But there's also been an incredible amount of work that's taken place before I got here that even set the stage for me to join this team. You know I think it shouldn't be lost on anybody that for me to agree to be here and to sign on to supporting this incredible mission, I had to feel like there [was a] culture that was going to be open to my beliefs and my values. And I think that's absolutely the case. ... We learn as we go and we also have to be accountable when we get it wrong and we can't we can't keep getting it wrong.”
The 150-year-old MFA has been grappling with the same thing most western encyclopedic museums are reckoning with: a systemically racist legacy. Rooted in colonialism, encyclopedic museums have historically served as preservation tools from a white, western perspective.
In 2015, according to the MFA, 79% of museum visitors identified as Caucasian. The most recent records released by the museum show that about 20% of the MFA’s 700-plus member staff self-identifies as nonwhite. Of that group, only 14% are in the “professional” ranks, meaning curators, conservators, educators and leadership. To change its largely hegemonic audience and employee base, the museum in June 2017 unveiled MFA 2020, a strategic plan that strives for more inclusivity. The plan calls for a focus on diversifying staff, some new programming concepts like movies on the museum’s lawn, a series of late-night events, and free, family memberships for newly naturalized U.S. citizens.
For her students' sake, Lamy hopes the museum improves. She and her students have discussed what happened and the kids have written letters to museum staff which they plan to present to McCreary.
“They inspired me in the sense that they were very strong about it once they kind of processed everything that happened to them,” Lamy said. “For them it was more like, ‘I want things to change. I want things to be different.' They actually want the museum to be a lot more diverse in terms of staff. They don't want that to happen for another group of kids. They just wanted policies to change so that it doesn't happen again. Those are their expectations."