This is why I don’t like being part of a club: Because whenever one member of the club does something stupid, it somehow makes every other member look (and feel) like an idiot.
As reported last week in the Boston Globe, earlier this month a group of seventh graders from a predominantly African-American middle school in Boston went on a class trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, during which they were subjected to an unexpected torrent of racism from staff and fellow patrons alike.
According to witnesses, shortly after their arrival, the class was told by a museum docent, “No food, no drink and no watermelon.” Later on, students reported being trailed throughout the galleries—to the point of extreme discomfort—by various security guards who seemed to have no interest in the white kids nearby. Additionally, according to the Globe, one student was chided by an adult museumgoer “about paying attention in the MFA so she could avoid a career as a stripper,” while another visitor blurted out, “there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.”
And we wonder why Boston is still regarded as a less-than-hospitable place for black people to live and raise their families.
Reading the details of this bizarre field trip from hell, I found myself embarrassed and appalled at least three times over: First, as a human being; second, as a longtime resident of greater Boston; and third, as a frequent visitor to—and member of—the Museum of Fine Arts itself.
See, it’s one thing when some casual act of Northern racism occurs on a subway platform or in the bleachers at Fenway Park—places that are loud, dense, messy and more-or-less open to the general public.
By contrast, an art museum—in this case, arguably the finest in all of New England and the silver bullet in Boston’s cultural arsenal—is supposed to be the sort of refined, enlightened and (it must be said) exclusive repository of human excellence where that sort of submental crap doesn’t happen. I don’t know about you, but I can spend hours wandering through art galleries without uttering a word to anyone, let alone complaining about “[expletive] black kids” and giving unsolicited career advice to random 13-year-old girls I might encounter along the way.
As an MFA member—someone who, for a mere $75 per year, is free to explore the museum’s innumerable holdings and special exhibitions to my heart’s desire—I take my privileges seriously enough to respect the institution and all the people in it, and I expect everyone else to do the same.
And so, when a pair of fellow patrons made a wretched spectacle of themselves in the very halls where the city’s most priceless treasures are displayed, I could not help but take it personally. Much as the rotten behavior of one ballplayer reflects poorly on the entire team, so, too, did it feel as though the bald racism of two museum guests tainted the character of all the others.
I love the MFA dearly, and I don’t want to tell an out-of-towner about some terrific new exhibit there and be asked, “Oh, you mean the place that treats black people like garbage?” Nor, I might add, do I want to be in the position of answering, “Yes, that’s the one.”
Following a formal inquiry, the MFA—to its credit—was able to identity the morons who made those ridiculous comments and has banned them from the premises. (Both were, in fact, members.) As for the “watermelon” comment from an unnamed staff member, officials could neither confirm nor refute that such a thing was said: The person in question claimed to have told the class, “No food, no drink and no water bottles”—the official museum policy for all visitors—raising the possibility that he or she either severely misspoke or (less likely) was misheard.
Regarding the overbearing security guards, a museum spokesperson insisted—rather unconvincingly—that they were following normal protocol at all times, while nonetheless acknowledging, “[I]t is understandable that […] the students felt followed [and] it is unacceptable that they felt racially profiled, targeted, and harassed.”
As short-term damage control goes, the MFA’s response to this mess has been reasonably adequate, insomuch as it has taken the students’ complaints seriously, has apologized multiple times and in multiple ways, and has pledged to reassess and tweak its policies to ensure this sort of horror show doesn’t happen again.
In the long term—as the Globe and others have loudly opined over the last week—the museum needs to figure out how to foster a clientele that is sufficiently diverse—racially, socioeconomically—that a group of black seventh-graders will feel just as welcome and at-home there as I do.
This could certainly be achieved through an acceleration of the MFA’s pre-existing effort to spotlight more artists of color in its galleries, events and various other special programs—and to make those events free of charge, as many of them already are.
Or better yet: Why not just make the whole damn place free of charge? Rather than perpetuating the aura of exclusivity (read: exclusion) that its $25 admission fee engenders, why shouldn’t this most indispensable of civic institutions truly become a gathering place for all the people, à la the Boston Public Library or Faneuil Hall? If New York’s Metropolitan Museum can offer free—or rather, voluntary—admission for all New York State residents without going bankrupt, why not the MFA?
It won’t solve all of Boston’s racism problems at once. But it would at least be an acknowledgement that those problems still exist, and that access to art is no less essential to a flourishing and equitable society than access to education or healthcare. Someday the world will understand that, and thereby become an immeasurably better place to live.