Seattle Children’s Museum Lays Off Staff Amid Conflict Over Black Lives Matter Posts

Seattle Children’s Museum. Richie Diesterheft/Flickr

The Seattle Children’s Museum has laid off nine of its remaining full-time staff members this week following a controversial move to delete anti-racist messaging from its social media posts. In an open letter published Tuesday on Medium, anonymous workers detailed how executive director Christi Keith purposefully removed captions on Instagram and Facebook that centered the Black Lives Matter movement in order to avoid discouraging contributions from donors. The staff claims this issue is symbolic of “regular indignities, microaggressions, and institutional inequities” from director-level staff. 

On May 30, an employee added posts addressing racial justice in early childhood education on the museum’s social media accounts, stating that children should learn anti-racism to foster loving and inclusive communities. In the hours after posting, Keith allegedly took over the social media accounts, first deleting the phrase “Black Lives Matter” from each caption and then deleting the captions altogether (original text can be viewed on Facebook’s public edit history of the posts). In the process, she also changed the Instagram account password and revoked the staff member’s access to their work email. 

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Several members of the predominantly BIPOC staff attempted to bring the board of trustees into the conversation, to no avail. Floor staff, educators, and the rentals and outreach team then incited a labor stoppage as of June 1 until Keith met their demands of reinstating the original posts and personally meeting with the staff. Instead, the nine employees were notified via email that their employment had been terminated.

The former employees allege that the layoffs are an attempt to avoid confronting systemic racism and abuse at the museum. Their open letter claims that the directors might attempt to cover this up as a pandemic-related measure, but the laid-off staff told Observer that they had long been a united force for change, and this was the easiest way to cease internal unrest.

“It was common for staff to feel afraid to speak to leadership, because of the expected negative response,” the laid-off staff collectively told Observer via email. “We have watched many of our dedicated colleagues leave the museum and find work elsewhere in reaction to leadership and the work environment.” The staff requested anonymity for fear of additional reprisal.

Despite the floor management’s efforts to include staff members in racial justice conferences, directors have rarely been held accountable or faced any consequences for their actions. One anonymous employee claimed that the work environment was always tense and “extremely retaliative,” and those who pushed back were often targeted by directors. “Between July 2017 and mid-August 2017, we had 14 coworkers quit over the internal culture and drama,” the employee stated.

One former employee told Observer that directors often cultivated a divide between “office” and “floor” staff. One senior staff member involved in operations has become  known for heated arguments with museum guests, and another senior staff member involved in finance and HR rejected the idea of including a land acknowledgement statement in a Tribal Tales exhibit, saying that the U.S. won against Indigenous communities, and they should “get over it already.”

While the museum’s directors have remained neutral during a nationwide uprising against police violence—mentioning the possibility of retaliation from far-right extremist groups—many museum-goers feel that an institution devoted to children’s education should be at the forefront of promoting anti-racism. On social media, long-time patrons have responded to the letter by stating they will no longer take their children to the museum, and they have even threatened to cancel their paid memberships. 

Seattle was the original epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and the city faced some of the harshest police suppression in June—with both incidents disproportionately affecting communities of color. In recent weeks, many of the country’s largest cultural institutions have been criticized for accepting Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans from the federal government while continuing to lay off workers. It is unclear how the museum plans to make up for their recent lay-offs, as only six full-time staff members remain. 

In a joint statement issued to Observer, the nine former employees wrote, “If the Seattle Children’s Museum is to move forward, changes must be made. The most significant changes must begin with leadership. Our hope and our goal is for the Seattle Children’s Museum to become and remain a space that puts the needs of the community first.”

The museum did not responded to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Update: This article originally stated that the recently laid-off staff members felt directors cultivated a divide between “office” and “floor” staff. This was the opinion of one former employee. The piece has been updated to reflect this change.