'Stuck in the past century': Staff denounce sexism at Royal Museum of Fine Arts

'Stuck in the past century': Staff denounce sexism at Royal Museum of Fine Arts
Museum Director Michel Draguet. Credit: Dirk Waem / Belga

Staff at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts are speaking out against the museum's director, Michel Draguet, after 31 of 176 employees signed an open letter condemning a toxic work culture last week, reported RTBF.

Six current or former employees criticised inappropriate behaviour from the museum director, while RTBF heard several anonymous accounts.

"We are faced with someone who is stuck in the past century. He does not hesitate to make remarks that are completely inappropriate, sexist or racist, even in meetings. This is a public institution, financed by Belgian taxpayers. We are so fed up!" stated one employee.

"In my opinion, sexism is one of the techniques of intimidation, among others, which is set up within the Museums of Fine Arts," another told RTBF.


The employee added that people who are "a little too feminist" are "regularly humiliated". They stressed that although the museum's facade currently depicts a poster in support of Iranian women, this is not reflected inside the institution.

Some sources noted that communication with the director can "quickly switch to something inappropriate", with some women stating how "flirty" comments made them feel "uncomfortable".

One employee expressed relief at "publicly denouncing" the behaviour in the open letter, but many feared reprisals. Others lament a lack of inclusive language: "It's very tiring because we censor ourselves on these subjects, it creates a climate of stress and fear because Michel Draguet decides unilaterally, there is no possible debate."

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Several people question how the museum presents works of art. During the museum's recent Picasso exhibition, the painter's relationship with women has been reinterpreted but anonymous sources told RTBF that they were "unable to address these aspects in the exhibition itself."

"In the art world, everyone is aware. It is very difficult to collaborate with him," several sources stressed.

Many described a toxic culture in which Draguet would yell at people, with too few employees burdened with too much work. Another describes how the director would insult people: "He described a former communication manager as saying that she had the intelligence of a vagina."

Harassing students

In addition to his role at the Museum of Fine Arts, Draguet is a professor in art history and archeology at the Free University of Brussels (ULB).

Yet anonymous students describe being in a state of terror during exams and how many would break down crying after a session with him. Two former students describe feeling "humiliated."

"You feel like crap on this exam, and I'm a pretty good student. Plus he asked me about the influence of African art on Picasso and I really wanted to talk about cultural appropriation but I didn't dare, it's impossible to address these questions in front of him. "

The two former students wanted to file a complaint against Draguet but were dissuaded from taking action. ULB confirmed to RTBF that no case has been raised but insisted that it "vigorously defends equality and non-discrimination, we say no to all forms of aggression and violence."

Denial of wrongdoing

Draguet himself denies any wrongdoing in response to the anonymous testimonies. On feminist and colonial issues, he stated that "Royal Museums are a scientific institution and not one of activism. We work objectively as taught by the scientific dynamic."

He added that there is currently "no legal obligation" to write inclusively: "I do not prevent staff from using it in their own correspondence but for the sake of balance with the Dutch language – and out of personal conviction, which is still a basic right – I do not wish to see it applied to museum communication."

He denied yelling at museum employees or making inappropriate comments. On Monday, unions and the museum's managers met with Empreva, the External Service for Prevention and Protection at Work. It was decided that Emprava will carry out a confidential survey to better assess the situation.

Draguet is applying for a fourth term as the museum's director but this term may depend on Empreva's conclusions on the matter.

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