Open Letter to Museum of African American History (Boston) & National Parks Service

To Whom It May Concern:

I write to inform you of an unfortunate series of incidents at the Museum of African American History and the African Meeting House in Boston, Massachusetts on September 16, 2017. My colleagues and I brought our two classes from Bates College in Maine as part of a field trip to show them archives and museums in Boston. This trip was vitally important to us because we designed it (having visited the museum before with no problems) to buttress our coursework. As the Chair of the African American Studies program, I was eager to let the students experience African American cultures and histories outside of Maine, and outside the confines of a traditional bricks and mortar classroom. Unfortunately, two problems arose: first, the venue was inaccessible. Second, the tour of the African Meeting House was disappointing from an intellectual and cultural perspective. I will address each of these in turn.

The venue was inaccessible for a variety of reasons. The sidewalk entrance on Joy Street was blocked by a sign. The sign, ostensibly designed to advertise and signal the placement of the museum, obstructed the sidewalk. This is a problem for people with mobility devices and impairments. I – a person who uses a mobility device – had to get off the sidewalk to accommodate the sign. This posed an avoidable danger to my safety. Upon arriving to the museum, we discovered that one would need assistance with the lift: operating it, uncovering it in the mist, et cetera. This is a problem: access means that one should be able to enter and exit a facility with minimal assistance or disruption, like all other patrons. The lift also did not work. All employees from the National Park Service relied on the employee from the museum to figure out how and why the lift did not work. All emphasized that they had not been trained or that they did not know how it worked. While my class entered and completed their assignments (thanks to the assiduous work of my colleagues), I had to wait outside the museum for an hour and still could not get in. When the supervisor (Diane) was called, I asked to speak with her and was rebuffed. By the time the museum employee got the lift to work, my classes’ time was finished and it wasn’t clear that he nor anyone else would be proficient with the machine to both lower and raise me and my mobility device safely. To be clear, the only person who worked to try to get me inside the museum was the young man who took the tickets. All other staff stood around doing nothing or in the supervisor’s case told him to “read the instructions.” This inaccessibility coupled with the disrespect clarifies who is welcome to enter the facility.

Our classes’ experience at the African Meeting House was vastly different than our previous experience. The week before, our colleague (Dr. Baltasar Fra-Molinero) came to the African Meeting House to understand how to best organize our courses. His tour was informative and respectful of the secular sacred nature of the space. Our experience on the other hand was not. First, the National Parks Service employee who provided our tour appeared unkempt, nearly disheveled. Unlike his other colleagues, he did not represent the National Parks Service in a professional manner. His appearance demonstrated a considerable lack of respect for the job he was required to do. Second, in his introduction to the African Meeting House, he failed to acknowledge what the space means – its considerable cultural weight. It is imperative that tour guides be attentive to the way this space functions as a piece of history. Their place in it regardless of social position requires a reverence he did not demonstrate. He gave no acknowledgement of the fact that he was standing in a space that changed Black history. Third, the information this tour guide did provide was meager. He spoke for no more than five minutes and did not have a coherent speech. He equivocated about who spoke in the space, gave no sense of history, and used anachronistic terms to describe events. It took us, the three professors, to round out his commentary, after other patrons had gone, and to correct some of the factual errors he posited. It was then and only then that his younger colleague provided more information about seating.

Needless to say, this experience is not what we expected for ourselves or our students. As part of the intellectual community wedded to preserving this history, we are disappointed that – at least during our visit – it rested in such poor hands. We not only hope that you fix the immediate access issues – remove barriers, train staff, fix equipment – but we also hope that you fix the larger staffing issues with the National Parks Service – culturally train employees, make tours consistent, ensure accurate information.

All best,

Dr. Pickens

About TAPPhD

Therí A. Pickens received her undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature from Princeton University (P'05) and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA (2010). Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. She recently published her first book, New Body Politics (Routledge, 2014), which investigates the role of the material body in constructing social and political critique. Her critical work has appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, Al-Jadid, Journal of Canadian Literature, Al-Raida, and, the ground-breaking collection, Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English at Bates College. She is also a creative writer. Her poetry has appeared in Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, Save the Date, and Disability Studies Quarterly. Her drama has been performed at the NJ State Theater. She offers courses on Arab American and African American literature. In her introductory courses, she seeks to provide students with information and skills that will enable and empower them to critically and constructively engage difficult topics like race, sexuality, gender, disability, and class. In her upper division courses, she pushes students to synthesize their knowledge from other classes and expand their critical thinking repertoires.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply