facade of science museum

Open to the Public?
Creating Truly Inclusive Museums

Reporting by Yasmine Jumaa • May 6, 2021

Open to the Public?
Creating Truly Inclusive Museums

Reporting by Yasmine Jumaa • May 6, 2021

For more than half a century — before it became the state's first museum devoted to science — the building at 2500 W. Broad St. in Richmond was a transportation hub.

Calder Loth is a former senior architectural historian for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. He said the planners of many major buildings echoed classical styles at the turn of the 20th Century.

"It was the first use of a dome on a major railroad station," Loth said. "They were adapting motifs of ancient Roman temples to give a dignity of appearance to civic amenities such as this, celebrating transportation. But that was a trend in the country. Our railroad stations were often great points of pride for cities."

The station opened to passengers in the winter of 1919 as the southern terminus of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad. Train buffs call it one of America's last remaining great terminals.

The Jefferson Memorial — another domed landmark — and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. are other works in the portfolio of John Russell Pope, the architect of Broad Street Station.

"You build a heroic looking building like that to create a stately entrance to your city," Loth said. "You go into that great lofty space there, it's thrilling. You feel like you're in a special place and it makes you feel like a special person to be there."

The planners of this building made sure not to extend that feeling to Black passengers. Racial segregation was embedded in the station's design.

In the earliest blueprints, waiting areas are designated by race. While white passengers were greeted by grand, vaulted ceilings, Black passengers were relegated to a smaller waiting area and tiny lunch counter, and forced to use a small side entrance. (Image Courtesy Science Museum of Virginia)

Separated by Design

Dr. William Ferguson Reid is in his mid-nineties. The Richmond native is a civil rights activist, retired physician and veteran politician. He and his family used the station when he was young.

"You had to enter a segregated entrance, which took you to the Black waiting room and the Black restrooms," Reid said. "We did have to enter from the side and not from the main front of the building."

Broad Street Station was built so white and Black passengers couldn't mingle. Its ticket office separated the different areas. Reid recounted the way that felt.

Portrait of Dr. Reid
(Photo Courtesy Dr. William Ferguson Reid)

"It was resentful that we had to wait until all of the white customers were taken care of before they took care of the Black customers," Reid said.

A small stretch of train tracks remains at the museum today. Back then, white passengers used to board trains from the main concourse. Black passengers like Reid had to exit the building and walk around back to get on board.

"It took a long time to get used to it and to get confidence that you would not be embarrassed about some people who resented your being in places," Reid said.

Segregation remained in place for decades, until the building's final 14 years as a train station.

By the early 1970s, train ridership dropped. Loth, the architectural historian, said the station's location worked for passengers, but not for trains that had to detour about a mile from their main routes to reach it. Broad Street Station shut down in 1975.

"When Amtrak abandoned Broad Street Station, many people realized that this was a great architectural landmark and civic amenity," Loth said. "Philanthropists and others worked with the state to have the state acquire it and adapt it very sympathetically as the science museum."

railroad tracks
The former railway is preserved behind the museum; the domed ceiling is visible in the background. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

About two years after the last conductor yelled, "All aboard," the Science Museum of Virginia opened its doors to the public. A year later, in January 1977, then Gov. Mills Godwin unveiled its first permanent exhibit gallery, the Discovery Room, in what used to be the Black passengers' waiting area.

The Science Museum of Virginia has expanded over the years, mostly to accommodate the demand for large gatherings and events in the area, including weddings and galas. During the COVID-19 pandemic, state senators have met there, safely distanced, for General Assembly sessions.

Still, the museum acknowledges its origins as a train station. In January 2019, it hosted celebrations of Broad Street's centennial, including a black tie event, a special exhibit called "All Aboard!" and a countdown to the exact time the first train departed in 1919.

Rich Conti is the science museum's 'Chief Wonder Officer,' a role equivalent to executive director. He said SMV featured information about the way the building was segregated by design during a 2012 exhibit about race. The centennial events, he added, weren't about that.

"The focus was on the architecture and it being a train station. But I had no reason to not talk about it or to talk about it," Conti said. "I guess at the time it didn't seem ... didn't pop into my head."

Historian Calder Loth suggested leaders at the Science Museum of Virginia may have missed a teachable moment as they marked a significant milestone.

Interior photo of museum
A view of the room designated as "Colored Waiting Room" on old blueprints. The gates that separated it from the rest of the station still remain today. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“To what extent they are addressing the segregated history of that building. It certainly is evident on this original floor plan,” Loth said. “But whether they're making anything of that, I don't know. And perhaps they should.”

Nowhere in the museum is there a permanent acknowledgment of the building’s segregated past.

When it was built, racial segregation was legal, customary and commonly accepted among white people. While the laws have changed, the building remains. These days it houses a state agency with a commitment to serve the entire population in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Public's Museum

The Science Museum of Virginia promotes itself as a place for everyone to visit and discover together. In Richmond, “everyone” means a population with a slight African American majority. 

On its website, the museum pledges a commitment to “providing accessible and inclusive experiences” by “working hard to ensure it’s creating relevant and meaningful ways for all guests to interact with the museum.” 

But, to non-English speakers — a small but growing population in Richmond that includes immigrants, transplants from other cities and international students at the area’s universities — obstacles begin with the agency’s website. 

Martina Hernandez is a graduate research assistant studying neuroscience at Virginia Commonwealth University. She’s fully bilingual in Spanish and English. 

It took her 20 minutes to find the first mention of translation —  hidden under the website’s “membership” tab, and four clicks away from the homepage. As for the rest, she said, “This is all in English.”

The only link to Spanish-language content leads to a page about reduced-price museum membership for families with electronic benefit transfer cards.  Hernandez called that “kind of prejudiced, assuming that all Hispanic families are on some sort of assistantship.” 

None of the text navigating to — or on — the page is available in Spanish.

Last October, I mentioned the website’s language barrier during an interview for this story with the museum’s executive director, Rich Conti. 

“Well, that's definitely something we could improve upon. So we'll take a look at that,” Conti said. “We literally are going to introduce a whole new website as early as this month. So I think that’s definitely something we should do better with.”

In February, 2021, the museum introduced a new site design. It included none of the changes Conti said officials would consider. The home pages of other public institutions, including the Richmond City and Henrico County libraries and the regional public transit system, offer visitors the option to use Google Translate — a program that instantly presents information in dozens of languages.

Within SMV, people have also raised concerns about its commitment to inclusion and equity.

Over the last year, former science museum employees approached me to share their stories about discrepancies in treatment, disciplinary actions and advancement opportunities for people of color. Their concerns  prompted me to examine whether the public institution serves everybody the way it’s supposed to. 

In August, 2019, SMV hired two administrative assistants, two days apart. From the beginning, the white employee, Ella Bronaugh, sat at a desk outside the museum director’s office. The Black employee, Sumeya Hassan, did not.

“I was told that I'd be working downstairs in the basement, which I was like, okay, red flag number one,” Hassan said. 

Hassan uses they/them pronouns. After experiencing that first red flag, they said they talked with Black office mates about whether they’d experienced different treatment than white counterparts. From these conversations Hassan learned this happened pretty often at the museum. 

“I think working here, depending on like, many factors including race, limits you very much to how much you can do and how much you can progress within your position,” Hassan said. 

Director Conti said he wasn’t aware that among many employees, it’s common knowledge that people of color work in the basement.

“Ah, no. I think that's silly. That's definitely not,” Conti said. “And I'm not, again, sure where you're hearing that from, but no. That's … that’s goofy.”

Yasmine Jumaa: I'd like to go back to asking you about one of the concerns raised by present employees that you said was silly. Those are concerns of — people of color who work for you feel like the basement is a destination for employees of color.
Rich Conti: You're making a pretty broad generalization there. I mean.
Jumaa: I'm not generalizing. Those are things that were said to me. So I'm, I'm just, what are the things…
Conti: What you're saying multiple people are telling you this?
Jumaa: Yes.
Rich Conti: Hmm. I, I, I'm not sure how to react other than I, I disagree, but I mean, you can, you can walk through the building and see that that's not the case. So we don't even, we don't even call. We don’t even have a basement. We have a zero level of the building.

I asked Conti whether shortcomings might exist in the way the museum constructs and carries out its mission statements, budgets and rules of conduct around treating all people with equity and respect.

His reply: “Hmmm. Nope!”

Bronaugh, the white employee hired alongside Hassan, said she has benefitted from preferential treatment. She said that a colleague, a person of color, told her that a supervisor wrote them up for being late to work. 

“I fell asleep twice, like two separate days at work, and I only got a verbal warning. And I feel like falling asleep is worse,” Bronaugh said. 

For Nic Ekanem, now a neuroscientist, working at the museum sounded like the job of a lifetime.

“I wanted to curate and create exhibits and ways to engage the public with real factual science in fun and ingestible ways,” Ekanem said. “And I thought ‘what a wonderful opportunity to be able to do it at the Science Museum of Virginia, like, wow.’”

The museum hired Ekanem on a five-month contract to communicate SMV's mission, including through Question Your World, a weekly science segment which airs on YouTube and this station.

However, after reassessing its resources, the museum said it will stop providing VPM with radio and web content for Question Your World starting June 2.

Ekanem is Black and uses they/them pronouns. They said it wasn’t long before reality began to intrude upon this dream job. 

“If I walked past somebody like in the hall or on the stairwell, they wouldn't know who I was and they would be confused as to why I was there. And I would have to like, let them know that I work there — I'm allowed to be here,” Ekanem said. 

Ekanem said people just assumed they didn't belong in employee-only areas because they're Black. These casual challenges are part of a category of discriminatory behavior usually termed 'microaggressions.' Black people face microaggressions like this at workplaces large and small. Before the pandemic, the science museum employed about 120 people — fewer than 30 were people of color.

“Everybody I saw upstairs in the offices was white,” Ekanem said.

All four of the former employees I interviewed on the record say this lack of representation in leadership concerned them — a lot. 

Yasmine Jumaa: A former employee shared with me a Twitter thread of yours from August, 2017, in which you suggested that resilience is a foreign term to people on Richmond’s stoops and in corner stores. What did you mean by that?
Jeremy Hoffman: That we …  that like, you know … the science world and. So, first and foremost, like there is a lack of shared dictionary about aspects of climate change. And I think that that's, you know, a fault of the scientific community that we can't … we have the trouble connecting with people using scientific jargon and things like that. So, that’s basically what I mean is that resilience, the idea of resilience in the sense of the scientific climate resilience understanding is probably something that is thought of differently. Or, you hear the word resilience in the public sphere, that that's something that doesn't connect directly to the idea of climate resilience. So, you know, and I think I’ve spent a lot of time also talking about from the practitioner side, the idea of resilience being: resilience for whom? So, there's a discussion also, not only is there a gap between public understanding of climate resilience topics, but there's also many of the resilience things that we talk about from on the practitioner side or the scientific side tend to only benefit particular communities, meaning wealthier, whiter communities tend to receive, you know, different infrastructural investments, more so than, you know, marginalized communities.
Nic Ekanem: There was that aspect about stoops and corner stores. And I think that was the part when it really hit that this was a very insensitive comment on his part. Firstly, people of color — he's indicating that, from his perspective, people of color are not resilient and it's his duty to teach these people how to learn resilience and become resilient. And I mean, I don't have to be the one to like prove that that's kind of absurd. And, I kind of want to say obscene. Also, the um, stoops and corner stores comment is incredibly reductive … basically indicating that these people who he's referring to spend all of their time hanging out on stoops and corner stores, doing what? I don't know. I mean, he could be implying anything, but certainly not being capable of being resilient or working in their communities to improve their situations —  which we know they are. But given systemic issues, there's only so far you can go. Of course, Jeremy is indicating that he, given his status as a privileged white male, is the one who will be able to swoop in and save everyone. It's, uh, it's a very problematic perspective to see, particularly from somebody who I was hoping would be a mentor.

Ekanem’s manager was SMV’s Chief Scientist Jeremy Hoffman. He oversees a project exploring how climate change affects low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods more than other areas of the city. He said he tries to promote a more equitable institution beyond the building, through grants that allow residents and local groups to collaborate with the museum on its climate justice initiative.

“This air quality community science project is really focused on maintaining and further developing the relationships ... with community non-profits, like Groundwork RVA,” Hoffman said. “And using the science museum’s resources to empower teams from Groundwork RVA to make a positive change in their neighborhood based on scientific information.”

Ekanem said Hoffman’s talk didn’t match his walk.

“He was supposed to...keep me up to date on what's going on, provide me with opportunities to engage with the science museum staff, attend these important meetings, present at them. But I was never really faced with these opportunities,” Ekanem said. 

At one point, SMV communications officer Jennifer Guild asked if Ekanem would be willing to participate in a promotional video shoot — in a non-speaking role. In an email, Guild wrote, “We only have white people in this video and really wanted some diversity.” At the time, Ekanem said, they felt used.

“I've kind of lived my whole life being a token, and I just can't really do it anymore,” Ekanem said.

This is how Guild responded in an interview.

“If I made Nic feel tokenized, then that was certainly not my intention,” Guild said. “If we are ever in a situation where we have put together a piece and we recognize that there is not diversity included in that piece, we will follow up and try to make sure that we are doing everything that we possibly can to include diverse points of view or diverse representation.”

Christy Coleman, former director of the American Civil War Museum, spoke with Jumaa about DEI practices months before our interviews with science museum officials, specifically highlighting the ways organizations tokenize people of color.

Christy Coleman: If your institution is only calling in people of color, for example, when there's a special project, but they are not a part of the day to day operation, you know, you're really not serious in my view about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in the stories that you're telling.

Still, Ekanem wanted to keep the job and perhaps land a permanent one at the museum. Conversations with manager and chief scientist Jeremy Hoffman instilled confidence that it would happen.

What Ekanem didn’t know — and others at the office apparently did — was that the museum wouldn’t renew the contract. A meeting with the boss for answers didn’t offer much detail about why.

“The higher ups, whoever they are, said that I'm not suitable for the image that the science museum wants to present,” Ekanem said. “And I was told I'm not extroverted enough.”

Even so, after Ekanem’s contract expired, they stayed in touch with Hoffman — who encouraged an open exchange of ideas.

After the police murder of George Floyd, Ekanem emailed Hoffman to ask whether SMV had any response to the movement for Black lives — like offering a platform for Black scientists to promote their work through the museum.

“And then Jeremy asked me what the museum should do to alleviate this racial inequity,” Ekanem said.

They wondered, “why is he asking a Black person to solve this with no offer of compensation?”

When I brought this to Hoffman’s attention during an interview last November, he apologized and acknowledged that it was inappropriate to request unpaid emotional and professional work from a person of color.

There’s a grievance process for personnel in government agencies. The staff whose concerns sparked this story told me they feared losing their jobs or leadership opportunities if they spoke up. 

Virginia Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) said there are avenues for change available at the state level. But, she added, lawmakers can’t act to mend an issue they don’t even recognize. 

“I just hope people know that there are people who are ready and willing to stand in these systems of power for them, willing to go to bat and fight for what they are experiencing — particularly if it is a circumstance of unfairness, prejudice and, or bias. And especially if it's a state agency,” Aird said in an interview. 

In two years of SMV trustee meetings through Autumn 2020, the minutes reflected only one discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion.

When its board met in June, 2020, there was no mention, even as protests took place across the city, including along Broad Street, outside the science museum. 

The board of trustees at another state agency in Richmond — the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — met around the same time. Here’s what its president, Dr. Monroe Harris, Jr., had to say.

Dr. Harris: The past few months for me have been just surreal. First, we had COVID-19 that brought the country to a standstill and created a social health and economic crisis that I've never seen before. It exposed many of the health and economic disparities and inequities in our society, and brought them to the forefront for all of us to consider. That in and of itself would have been enough. But then there was a tragic murder of Mr. George Floyd by the police. Anyone with any sense of humanity was horrified, saddened and angered by officers Chauvin's callous and nonchalant disregard for human life. The pain and response of Mr. Floyd’s death and the death of many others, including Breanna Taylor, who was from my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The world erupted in protest. And Richmond became the epicenter — one of the epicenters — of that protest.

“On the night when protesters reacted to the statues on Monument Avenue and came down Arthur Ashe Boulevard, and even tagged one of our neighbor’s buildings, the statues on our campus and the art remained relatively unscathed,” Harris said. “It is meaningful to me that our community understood the importance of our institution. It is important that our message here at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts resonates well within the community.”

Harris is the first African American to preside over the trustees in the institution’s 85-year history. He noted that, while the art museum isn’t perfect, it’s working to help move the needle in the right direction. 

Building Institutions for All

Institutions throughout the country are reckoning with their role in perpetuating racial inequality. In Richmond, that conversation includes state agencies like the Science Museum of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 

It’s not easy to foster and maintain a truly inclusive institution. Take it from an African American who used to run the American Civil War Museum in Richmond — historian Christy Coleman. 

“Diversity is a fairly easy thing to say ‘we have a diverse staff’ and the majority of the people on your staff that are people of color are working in your housekeeping or some other area. And not in your education,” Coleman said. 

In early 2020 she became executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation — the Williamsburg-based home of the Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum. It’s a state-funded nonprofit.  

Coleman’s institution incorporates people from varied backgrounds and cultures — including members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus — into its boards and leadership

At the Science Museum of Virginia, seven of the eight executive staffers are white. The one Black department head is the director of facilities. Its 15-member board of trustees includes four people of color. 

The leadership at another state agency, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, looks more like Richmond’s population. People of color make up half of its management and about 40% of its board. 

SMV Board of Trustees

VMFA Board of Trustees

SMV Executive Staff

VMFA Executive Staff

VMFA Board of Trustees President Dr. Monroe Harris recalled what the museum was like under its previous leadership. 

“The museum has a reputation for being somewhat, in prior years — what's the word that I want — traditional, and in such a way that it may not be representative of everyone. And therefore a lot of us, particularly people of color, didn't really feel comfortable going there,” Harris said.

He added the museum has tried to achieve greater diversity in its leadership — and to better include and welcome everyone. This has been a focus of its strategic planning since 2016, and a driver for discussion and decision-making at trustees’ meetings over the last five years.

The Science Museum of Virginia has tried, during non-pandemic times, to welcome a broader range of visitors with programs like The Mix. That’s a hands-on “makers’ space” where teens can learn about design, computer science, multi-media production and more. The museum and the Greater Richmond Transportation Center offer free bus passes for participants. Director Rich Conti said that’s not the only way the museum has expanded its outreach.

“We started a program that we call Science Within Reach. And it was a program to allow us to, frankly, reach out to anybody that's not really a traditional museum goer — audiences that we really weren’t serving to the extent that we felt we should,” Conti said.

In three of SMV’s annual reports since 2014, Science Within Reach is the only program referenced when addressing inclusion and access.

In July, 2020, the museum added a new policy — effective through 2025 —  stating its commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion in the workplace.

The VMFA prides itself on diverse leadership and bold gestures. Three blocks from the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue, the museum installed — at its front entrance — “Rumors of War,” an equestrian sculpture of equal scale, featuring a dreadlocked Black figure — by Kehinde Wiley. He’s the artist who painted the official likeness of former President Barack Obama in the National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Wiley
Wiley at the "Rumors of War" exhibit opening. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Even so, at the Richmond art museum, current and former staff are raising concerns. They’ve formed a committee called VMFA Reform. On social media, they’ve reported low wages, discrimination based on race and questionable acquisition practices.

One example they note is the VMFA’s 2018 “Congo Masks” exhibit. When the museum’s director announced plans for that show, he told the trustees the collection would “complement and highlight” plans to attract more visitors and members of color — particularly African Americans.

Some observers saw problems with how the artifacts got there. In what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgian King Leopold II perpetrated more than 20 years of genocidal abuses in the colony’s rubber and ivory trades during the late 19th and 20th Centuries.

Marc Leo Felix, the Belgian art historian who collected and curated the exhibit’s masks and musical instruments, first visited the central African territory from 1959 to 1960 — during its last year as a Belgian colony.

portrait of Nyerges with Felix
Nyerges with Felix at the Congo Mask Exhibition opening. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

“Over the years, I acquired, I exchanged, I traded. And I tried to sell as little as I can,” Felix said. “[The artifacts] were important witnesses of the past of Congo, because there is no written history of Congo. It's all oral history. So the only proof we have of what happened in the past is art.”

At a press event for the exhibit, the VMFA’s Director Alex Nyerges told me he first saw the collection in China, when the Belgian curator Felix, his personal friend of nearly 30 years, invited him to a 2016 opening in Nanjing. Nyerges said the exhibit wowed him and that he knew, in that moment, that he wanted the museum to host the collection in Richmond.

“We tend to, in Western society, think of Africa as a monolithic place —  whether it's in terms of culture, or in this case, artwork,” Nyerges said. “There are 130 different varieties in terms of style and size and material and colors. And I think people will be wowed by the fact that it is anything but monolithic.”

Congo Masks
"Congo Masks" (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM News)

The museum hasn’t welcomed scrutiny from the VMFA Reform group, which details anonymous complaints from staff and post critical memes on an Instagram page. Leadership has denied the claims, tried to shut the social media page down and even commissioned a Virginia State Police investigation into the anonymous group members, according to board meeting minutes from September, 2020

“The postings have included violence essentially alluding to the fact that Kimberly Wilson and the HR people are prone to violence and we're talking violence with guns,” Nyerges said, referring to a photo from an Eric Andre skit.

Ultimately, Nyerges said the police determined it was all “probably nothing more than a lot of hot air,” but the museum increased security regardless: “We have upped our coverage. We've beefed up the number of police officers who are on duty, particularly after hours, and taking every precaution.”

In cities all over, many of the same people help to lead multiple institutions. Some people in Richmond call this the “Virginia Way” — a sort of guarantee to maintaining the social status quo. 

“Gosh, you know, Richmond is a big, small town,” VMFA Board of Trustees President Dr. Harris told me.

“I think the way that we can disrupt it is to provide opportunities for leadership, just as I was provided an opportunity for leadership here. We have to make a conscious effort to provide opportunities for not just a few, but expand that circle to include some people that may not ordinarily have been even thought of,” Harris said. 

Some institutions are trying to expand the circle. Each year, one local nonprofit assembles a diverse array of younger professionals in many sectors to network and develop management skills. Leadership Metro Richmond aims to create a harmonious cohort of movers and shakers who reflect the region’s demographic makeup. The organization’s participants and board mirror this pledge. By contrast, as of 2019, all 17 members of the Science Museum of Virginia’s Emerging Leaders Council are white. 

Richmond has grappled with echoes of its confederate heritage for years. 

After a 2019 blackface photo scandal embarrassed Gov. Ralph Northam, he appointed the first state cabinet-level Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer in the country. Her name is Janice Underwood. Prior to accepting this role, she served as director of diversity initiatives at Norfolk’s Old Dominion University.  Underwood’s job has been to build a framework for the One Virginia Plan, a strategic proposal to ensure state agencies represent, welcome and facilitate access for the people they serve. 

During a Martin Luther King Day conference this year on Zoom, she described the scope of that task.

“You can’t change what you don’t measure, and you can’t measure what you don’t acknowledge,” Underwood said.

Portrait of Aird
Watch an expanded interview with Aird. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

“I do believe it's critical and I do believe a lot of people are paying more attention than they have ever paid before,” state Del. Lashrecse Aird (D-Petersburg) said.

At this year’s General Assembly session, Aird introduced a measure to declare racism a public health crisis and enact policies that would help fight systemic inequities. These would include implicit bias training for elected officials, staff members and state employees. Early on, the measure advanced as a result of mostly Democratic support. But in the end, state senators unanimously voted to halt the measure and continue discussing it during the legislature’s special session.

In recent decades, museums in and beyond Richmond have faced calls to change the ways they represent different cultures within their operations and to the public. In 2021, movement toward those efforts —  like the declaration that racism is a public health crisis — remains slow.