Memphis museum director speaks out on canceled drag performance

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The executive director of the Memphis Museum of Science and History, Kevin Thompson, is responding for the first time since he chose to cancel a drag performance that celebrated the close of an LGTBQ+ exhibit.

“We had armed folks here with, you know, high-powered rifles. That just is not something we want to engage in,” said Thompson.

Thompson said the museum received at least one email concerning a threat before the show.

“We had emails from members of the public. We had one email that we (sent) to the authorities that were threatening,” said Thompson.

Memphis drag entertainer Barbie Wyre hosted the drag event.

“A lot of families have mentioned on Facebook or online that this was going to be their kid’s first experience with a queer space and they were scared when they had to leave,” said Wyre.

Wyre said the show was a family-friendly event appropriate for all ages.

FOX13′s Daniel Wilkerson asked Thompson what specific threat rose to the level which prompted him to cancel the event.

“My security team here alerted me,’ hey, we (had) armed protesters’ and then that there were military-grade weapons present. That’s when we made a decision to pull the event,” said Thompson.

Wyre said the heavy police presence caught the performers and attendees by surprise.

“When we were told to evacuate, no one knew why. It was five minutes before the show. I was upset because of the heavy police presence and having to evacuate the venue because that signals to young people that this is dangerous, this is illegal (and) this is scary,” said Wyre.

Thompson said there were close to 300 people at the museum at the time of the incident.

“We actually had two events that evening. We had 290 folks who chose to spend Friday evening with us, and that’s phenomenal … About half at each. So, in addition to the drag event, we also had Queen, a queen laser light show in our planetarium and that was sold out as well,” said Thompson.

Thompson said the museum is owned by the city.

He said the protestors were allowed on the property, but not inside the building.

“We do know they were on the far side of the building with military-grade weapons. And so I’ve had mixed accounts of ‘they were looking indoors or checking doors.’ But at the time of the decision on that evening, the message I had was they (Proud Boys) were checking doors and that made a big difference.

Thompson said weapons are not allowed inside the museum.

“Our security saw a vehicle arrive with about 25 to 30 proud boys. About half came out and went to the entrance side of the building. The other half they (staff) saw visible military-type weapons and then (there are) different accounts as to what happened after that. But, yes, that was the main concern was, you know, the folks that were here came to enjoy an evening at the museum, not to engage in some sort of firefight with the armed militia,” said Thompson.

Thompson admits he did not consider placing the building on lockdown.

“Things were happening fast and escalating quickly … I didn’t even think to do a lockdown, to be honest with you,” said Thompson.

Thompson said their cameras captured very little of the incident.

“Our camera system (is) something we’ve been working on. It’s a very dated building. I’ve got three different security systems and most of that’s, you know, (is) internal versus external,” said Thompson.

Thompson said he held a meeting with the performers of the drag event after the incident.

“I sat down with the performers yesterday, and, you know, the hardest part of this decision is knowing the hurt you were going to cause to a group of folks who were discriminated against on a regular basis and I understand their hurt. I understand their pain and we had some dialog about that yesterday it’s hard and that’s the worst part of the decision. It’s a no-win situation, but the museum stands by its exhibit stands by its programming. We’re very supportive of the LGBTQ community here and they have been phenomenal to work with,” he adds.

Thompson said his staff will evaluate the incident and make any needed adjustments to protocol.

“We’re looking to create a broader DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) group that represents different aspects of our community and that can advise the museum on policies and procedures and (the) bigger picture,” he adds.