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Museums Have a Docent Problem

Palace Shaw was standing in one of the galleries in Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art when she heard something that rattled her. It was the summer of 2017, and the show on display was Nari Ward: Sun Splashed, a large retrospective of the Jamaican American artist’s work. Shaw, who had recently graduated from college, was working as a “visitor assistant”—which meant, she says, being a “mediator between the art and the visitor, but also kind of a policing role where I was enforcing museum policy.” She spent long days on her feet watching visitors stream in and out of galleries.

That June day, one of the museum’s volunteer guides was leading a tour of four school-age girls. Three of the girls were Black, says Shaw, and one was South Asian. The girls were asking the guide questions about the art, which included collages, large-scale installations, works made from found objects, and photographs, many of which dealt with racism, identity, and history. “What’s Black Power?” one of the girls inquired. The guide, an older white woman, was clearly struggling to give answers. At one point, Shaw says, she compared Afro-textured hair to different kinds of animal fur. “She knew what she was saying wasn’t quite right. But she didn’t really know how.”

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