Turmoil after a museum deletes 'Black Lives Matter' from postings

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Turmoil after a museum deletes 'Black Lives Matter' from postings
In an undated image provided by Seattle Children's Museum, the Seattle Children's Museum. The director of the Seattle Children’s Museum faced a strike and an internal inquiry after she edited all mentions of the phrase "Black Lives Matter" out of staff postings, citing fund-raising and other concerns. Seattle Children's Museum via The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, institutions of every kind worked to figure out what they wanted to say.

What sort of public statement should a shoe company release about racial injustice? How about a university? A theater?

At the Seattle Children’s Museum, staff members decided to post lists of children’s books online that were anti-racist in their messaging and featured joyful stories about Black children and their families.

Another social media post featured a museum program where children create their own “support signs,” not unlike the signs that activists bring to demonstrations, but typically softer. One declared “I love everything,” with drawings of heart-shaped balloons and peace signs.

All of the posts started with a declaration: Black Lives Matter.

Until they didn’t.

Hours after the postings on Instagram and Facebook on May 30, all mentions of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” had been edited out of the captions.

The museum’s executive director explained her rationale for the deletions a couple of days later on a staff video call that participants taped. Christi Stapleton Keith, the director, said she personally believed in the message of Black Lives Matter but the institution had a process and needed to create a message “that the museum could all agree on as an organization.”“And what happens” she went on, “if we lose funding? What happens if we lose donors? All of those considerations have to be considered when we write the language around this.”

The deletions and the call that followed created a crisis at the children’s museum that is still unraveling more than two months later. Nine employees of the museum, which had been operating online only because of the pandemic, almost immediately went on strike.

“At that moment I was prepared to never come back,” said Maya Burton, who, at the time, worked in the museum’s education department.

Two weeks ago, those nine employees were laid off, though the museum said it was a preplanned layoff related to the exhaustion of its funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and “in no way tied to recent developments.”

Now an outside investigator hired by the board of trustees is interviewing former and current employees as part of an inquiry into the social media incident.

Stapleton Keith, who has run the museum since 2017, has been placed on paid leave until its conclusion. In an email, she declined an interview request, saying that she could not go into specifics because of the ongoing investigation.

“I do want to underscore that the Seattle Children’s Museum and myself, personally, do support Black Lives Matter and have long put forth educational programming for children that supports a more diverse, inclusive and equitable society,” she said.

In a statement released after the layoffs in July, the museum sought to explain the controversy: “Because the content dealt with sensitive topics and had been posted without typical discussion, review or approval from SCM leadership, it was revised and references to Black Lives Matter were temporarily removed until a wider group of museum stakeholders could be consulted to ensure our messaging accurately represented our educational content.”

In an email, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, Andrew Mathews, said that “prospective loss of donors would never change our fundamental commitment to equity and social justice.”

The museum, which once featured a staff of 20, is now operating with five people. It had laid off most of its workers earlier in the spring as the pandemic bore down on Seattle, and it became clear that it would be a while before children and families would converge on its vast playground of hands-on activities, like the grocery store where visitors can pick out imitation food items.

During the months of the pandemic, though, the museum’s Instagram account had become a virtual stand-in for its programming, filling up over the weeks with science demonstrations about wind energy and composting, or cooking programs that showed children how to make “heart healthy chocolate pudding.”

One former employee who often appeared as a host of the videos, Mimi Santos, said that it felt natural for the museum to post lists of books that dovetailed with the racial justice protests sweeping the country. The lists included titles like “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness” and “My Hair Is a Garden,” a picture book about a Black girl learning the beauty of natural hair.

When Santos heard that Stapleton Keith did not approve of what had been posted, she said that she told her supervisor that, “If you take it down you’re telling the families that we serve and your front facing staff, who are majority people of color, you’re telling us that you don’t care.”

(Mathews said in an email that there were “varying accounts” of the timeline for when staffers expressed opposition to the idea of altering the posts.)

By the time the staff logged onto their computers to join the Zoom call with the director in June, they had a list of demands for their bosses, among them, that Stapleton Keith make a public apology and an explanation as to why the posts were edited.

Stapleton Keith sought to explain what had happened on the call. She said that the social media posts hadn’t gone through the proper processes and apologized for the “hurt all around because of the way these posts were handled.”

She told the staff that while “I don’t think any of us disagree with the language around Black Lives Matter,” releasing such a statement required more group consultation, as well as board approval.

A former employee who wrote the captions for the posts, Meg Hesketh, said that she did not realize that writing “Black Lives Matter” in a social media post would require a review process — or end up causing such a stir. She said that many members of the museum staff wore pins on their vests that say Black Lives Matter.

Particularly upsetting, several staff members said, was the suggestion that the tone of the postings needed to be modified so as to not upset donors. The museum says that about 40% of its budget, which was roughly $1.3 million in 2018, is contributed.

“My thought was that then we need to find better funding,” Anthony Noceda, a former employee, said in an interview. “If their values don’t align with that, then we don’t need their money.”

Mathews, the board chair, said that the investigator had also been tasked with looking into what employees had recently identified as ongoing problems with how staffers of color were treated at the museum. He said that the board was “taking the hurt that our community feels very seriously.”

Burton said that, even if there is a chance some staff will be hired back, she had decided not to return and headed home to Florida, where she lived before moving to Seattle to attend college in 2012. On Sunday, she was in the middle of the drive, when she reflected on the tumult of recent months.

“It’s sad because I was sure that this was going to be my forever job,” said Burton, who is Black. “But this is about people’s lives. It’s about my life, the lives of my family and friends.”

Since the controversy erupted in early June, the museum has used the phrase “Black Lives Matter” several times on its social media accounts and in its public statements. A new page on its website is called “Because Black Lives Matter.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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