The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has banned two patrons and apologized following its investigation into reports that a group of visiting students were harassed by other visitors and told by a staffer that “no food, no drink and no watermelon” were allowed during recent a class field trip to the institution.
In an open letter posted to its website Wednesday, MFA officials issued an apology to students and staff at the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester for “a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome.”
The group of seventh-graders, all of whom are students of color, said they were subjected to disparaging remarks and treatment by museum staff as well as other patrons during a visit to the nation’s fifth-largest museum on May 16.
“That is not who we are or want to be,” the MFA said. “We deeply regret any interactions that led to this outcome and we are committed to being a place where all people trust that they will feel safe and treated with respect.”
By Friday the MFA said it had confirmed that other museum visitors had made racist comments to the students “on two separate occasions,” and that it had identified those patrons, revoked their museum memberships and banned them. “We will serve them with a no-trespass cease-and-desist notification,” the museum’s statement said.
The museum said its investigation found the claim that an MFA employee had told the students when they arrived “no food, no drink, no watermelon” could not be corroborated, with the employee involved in this allegation claiming they had actually stated “no food, no drink and no water bottles” were allowed in the galleries.
Principal Arturo J. Forrest said his staff members alerted him that a museum worker had made a reference to watermelon, a long-held racist trope about African-Americans.
There were also reports of museum security singling out certain students and following close behind the group as they perused the exhibits, Forrest told The Boston Globe.
In Friday’s statements, the museum explained that the rotation of museum guards could have made it appear to the students they were being followed.
“The students visited a number of galleries and special exhibitions during their trip. These spaces were patrolled by 13 separate security guards who were all stationed in designated areas. During this time, guards went on and off break and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area or another,” the statement said. “Based on surveillance footage, it is understandable that, because of this movement, the students felt followed. That was not our intention. It is unacceptable that they felt racially profiled, targeted and harassed.”
The principal said there about 30 students who attended the trip that day. Over 90 percent of students at the Dorchester charter school are Black or Latino, and much of the staff are also people of color.
On the trip, Forrest said students “finally got to put a face to some of the things we go through in our curriculum.”
“It’s an unfortunate lesson to learn but inevitably it’s something we all go through as people of color,” he told the newspaper.
As for the two patrons who harassed the students, Forrest told the Globe one remarked to a student that she should pay attention so as to avoid a career as a stripper, while another referred to the group as “f—–g black kids.”
“There were many comments that made them feel unsafe throughout their time there,” he said.
Marvelyne Lamy, an English teacher at the school, took to Facebook to voice her frustration over the visit.
“It got so bad that I started gathering our students so we could leave,” she wrote in a lengthy post. “The worse part about all of this is seeing the hurt look on my children’s faces as this was their first time experiencing racism first hand. It’s sad.”
Lamy said she reported the mistreatment to MFA staff, but “they just looked on with pity.”
By the next week the MFA was contrite. “As we work to grow our community, we need to be sure that everyone feels welcome here — we want this to be your museum,” the institution said in a statement. “We look forward to ongoing conversation and commit to using this situation as an opportunity to learn and create a culture of unwavering inclusion.”