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Centers for Controversy and Context: The MFA and Kimono Wednesdays

Victoria Kitirattragarn

Dec 17, 2018

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Massachusetts is an internationally recognized museum with the "finest" collection of Japanese art outside of Japan but an event created in 2015 caused in uproar in the Asian community.

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston Massachusetts is an internationally recognized museum, the fifth largest in the United States and contains almost 500,000 works of art, claiming themselves to be “one of the most comprehensive art museums in the world.”[1] The MFA boasts of their “finest” collection of Japanese art outside of Japan[2] and similarly, one of the largest collections of the celebrated French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet’s, work outside of France. [3] An entire gallery is dedicated to Monet while multiple galleries are dedicated to Japanese and Asian arts yet there is one work in the entire museum that is the perfect blend of the MFA’s two most precious collections: La Japonaise by Claude Monet which is placed proudly Monet’s gallery in the Impressionist wing and garnered no trouble until a couple years ago when they hosted a spotlight talk, titled “Flirting with the Exotic” with an interactive component called “Kimono Wednesdays” scheduled to run from June to July in 2015. “Kimono Wednesdays” allowed and encouraged the public to try on a replica of the kimono painted in Monet’s painting. The spotlight talk, but exponentially more, “Kimono Wednesdays”, was ill received by a few Japanese-Americans who protested it within the first weeks of the event’s opening. They struck a match that was only fueled by social media, Facebook and Twitter, as more people of all races shared their opinions. Protestors soon met counter-protestors, each with their own arguments. A couple months later after the exhibition ended, the MFA hosted a two hour discussion panel to talk about all the points and issues that were raised which included, but are not limited to, racism, orientalism, colonization and cultural appropriation. In this paper, I will give a concise history of the painting, both in the 19th century when it was first created, and in the months before its return to the MFA, as well as points and claims protestors and counter-protesters had against or for the exhibition and finally the discussion panel. I will then delve into more critically examining the arguments the protestors, counter-protests and museum had for the program, briefly citing philosophical and anthropological writings, and how these arguments and issues reveal and enforce the bigger hurdles museums have to overcome.

From the second half of the 17th century until the mid-19th century, Japan had closed virtually all its trading ports. When they decided to end their self-imposed isolation period, the open ports ushered in the exchange of cultures into and out of Japan and the rest of the world.[4] Consequently, Japanese goods started to flood the European market, especially France, and started the Parisian craze for Japanese goods known as Japonisme. One of the most influential types of Japanese work for Impressionist painters, like Monet, was woodcut prints by masters from the ukiyo-e school.[5] La Japonaise, painted by Monet in 1876, depicts his wife, Camille, in a blonde wig, posing in a style reminiscent of courtesans in the ukiyo-e prints, wrapped in a brilliant red kimono and surrounded by uchiwa fans.[6] The painting is widely believed by many art historians to be a Monet’s wry commentary on Japonisme. Monet’s painting exchanged hands from France to New York since its appearance on the market since 1876 and it eventually joined the MFA’s collection in 1956.[7]

In 2013, the painting underwent conservation, partially funded by the NHK, Japan’s National Broadcasting Company. They claimed to know the story behind the kimono in the painting and asked permission to have replicas made by Takarazuka Stage Co, a Japanese theater company. The replicas took three months to complete and they, along with the painting, were part of a traveling exhibition, titled Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan, meant to highlight the influences Japanese art had on the Western world. [8] Over 130 works were in the exhibition however La Japonaise remains the highlight.[9] It started its tour in 2014 where many museums in the US, Canada and Japan, such as The Setagaya, The Kyoto Municipal Museum and The Nagoya (the MFA’s sister museum) were able to enjoy this creative exhibit. For the its time in Japan, the replica kimonos could be worn by the public and was met with great success. Upon its return, the kimonos, willingly given by the NHK, joined the painting back at the MFA at the request of the institution.[10] However, as the MFA would soon find out, the American audience would have more mixed thoughts about the exhibition.

In June and July of 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts the museum revealed their new feature with corresponding talks called: “Claude Monet: Flirting with the Exotic”. They also borrowed the tactics employed by the museums in Japan and allowed the visitors to don the kimono every Wednesday, hence “Kimono Wednesday”, until the end of the exhibition. By doing so, the museum hoped it would help viewers “engage with the painting in a different way.”[11] The kimono was on display in front of the painting anytime it was not worn with a sign that encouraged people to “channel your inner Camille Monet” and employed the #mfaboston as encouragement for sharing on social media. But it didn’t take long for a growing number of viewers to take issue with the mini-Halloween.

What started as three Japanese and Japanese-American protestors holding signs that read: “Try on a kimono, learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist!!! Today!!!” among others.[12] Soon more people joined the protestors and employed more critical words such as “cultural appropriation”, “orientalism”, “rape” etc. The protests gained even more support once pictures were posted online. Groups against the program started to form, calling themselves “Stand Against Yellow Face” and later, “Decolonize Our Museums” on twitter and Facebook. The museum at first did not seem to mind or at most, felt uncomfortable by the small protests but as the culture war grew, they felt the pressure and on July 7th, the MFA chose to alter the program and prohibit the wearing of the kimono. However, not everyone was against, or even neutral with the program – some were in favor of it and became counter-protestors who were mainly Japanese and Japanese-Americans. [13] The counter-protestors started to hold up their own signs that read: “[I am Japanese] and I am not offended by people wearing kimono in front of French paintings.”[14] Six months later, on February 7, 2016 at 1:30pm, the Museum of Fine Arts held a two-hour lecture and discussion panel which consisted of professors, curators, directors, an independent scholar, a protestor and a writer – all of which were people of color.[15] The discussion began with one of the rarest occurrences in museums – a public apology from Matthew Teitelbaum, the MFA’s director, which was followed by applause.[16] However, the discussion was still fraught with tension as protestors and counter-protestors posed comments and questions to the panel, and by extension the museum, with subjects that included white supremacy, racism and post-colonial legacy. Some audience members touched on inclusion, or lack thereof, for certain races and ethnicities in the museum and repatriation.

One of the biggest claims and accusations the protestors had was the use of the kimono was cultural appropriation. The museum had taken a quintessential symbol of Japan and created a mini Halloween event for it. Protestors claimed “Kimono Wednesdays” was an event, held at an internationally- recognized art institution, of culture appropriation within an Orientalist framework. Much of the discussion and definition around cultural appropriation both in and outside of philosophical literature, all have aspects of an action done in place/for the marginalized culture. Common words and ideas deal with rights, power, insider/outsider, politics and silencing.[17] Perhaps the strongest commonality is the concept of “taking” of a cultural object, which in it of itself, holds a wide range of possibilities, by a dominant culture/group from a marginalized group. To the protestors, the painting with it’s Japonisme context was an example of orientalism and cultural appropriation by the West and the museum’s program was viewed as support and lack of progressive viewpoint toward Japanese and Asians as the “other”. [18] The MFA’s publicity and attempt at creating an innovative and exciting event, was viewed as the taking of a cultural object by the West, a dominant and colonialist power, and using it inappropriately. However, what I think is important and unique about the object in question at the protests, is it’s hybridity. As the “quintessential symbol of Japan,…no item in the storehouse of material culture maintains as strong a hold on Japanese heart, mind and purse as kimono.”[19] While the kimono is a Japanese cultural object, the particular one used in the traveling exhibitions and events in Japan and the MFA may not be able to be called as such. It was likely Monet made up some parts of the kimono in his La Japonaise painting and that he did not own the exact kimono depicted. He most likely took inspiration from other Japanese prints, plays, artwork and clothing and created a hybrid image of the kimono to suite his compositional needs. When the NHK paid for the commissioned replica of the kimono in La Japonaise, the creation, while from a kimono artist in Kyoto, wasn’t entirely a Japanese cultural product because it was based off an image, an idea, a French Impressionist painter had almost one hundred and fifty years ago. When the traveling exhibition was in Japan, and locals were able to also wear the kimono, there was no backlash and the show was quite successful. The protestors argue that “an event that is welcomed in another country can have a completely different meaning in the U.S within the context of this country.” They argued that Japanese people in Japan do not face the misrepresentation and under-representation that they would face, as many Asians do, in America.[20] Even if the particular kimono at “Kimono Wednesday” was stripped of its unique context, and left with the barebones history of the artifact, the kimono is a widely consumed cultural artifact, not only by the rest of the world, but more so by the Japanese themselves. Japanese people are vehement consumers of their own culture, with a prosperous domestic tourist industry, including geisha experiences and kimono try-ons, opportunities that can be enjoyed y both Japanese and non-Japanese people alike. The kimono itself has been already influential in fashion spheres of the Western world in the early twentieth century and globally to this day, much in debt to high fashion designers from Japan. One practical lure of the garment is it’s “one size fits all” ability. Due to its wrap-around nature, it fits a wide variety of body types. The motto could also be applied to “fitting” many other cultures as “[the] Japanese people hardly ever reject the idea of a non-Japanese person wearing one” and as far as cultural symbols go, the Kimono is much less protective than a Native American headpiece or African masks, both of which have had more than their fair share of controversy. [21] Counter-protestors argued that the kimono, while a strong global and universal symbol for Japan, is “just a piece of clothing”. The kimono is a versatile, literally and figuratively, piece of clothing, fraught with historic and modern contexts, all of which the museum has to take in account when trying to emulate the success the Japanese museums had.

Asians, a marginalized minority group in the United States, includes a wide variety of people from Asian descent and relationship. The heterogenous group of people with different cultures from various Asian countries also bring many histories with them and while the European nations were not colonial powers in Japan, they were in most of Asia. Almost thirty countries in Asia were colonized by big European powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands. France, the country where Japonisme first appeared and Monet’s home, colonized Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, three main countries in Southeast Asia.[22] The MFA event created an opportunity for the marginalized group of Asians to voice their concerns with the painting and event, but to also bring attention to other issues surrounding big, predominately white, institutions, such as lack of inclusion and repatriation, both of which were pointed out in the discussion panel. The “taking” of a cultural object can occur both metaphorically as in cultural appropriation, but also psychically from violence, unlawful, immoral means. The “taking” of cultural objects also begs the question of its return. The “Kimono Wednesday” controversy opened doors to the recent and growing debate of repatriation and restitution of objects. One woman who identified as Thai during the discussion panel, explained how she has “never felt comfortable at an institution like [the MFA] because of how I look.” She went further and asked if the MFA had any plans to open up a conversation about “what it means to have access to histories of people of who maybe don’t have access to their own history.” [23] The MFA’s director, Matthew Teitelbaum, explained how the short answer to the questions was “yes” because the museum, like most others, are having “internal conversations” about the topics she had just brought up and that it should be done in the public sphere. Yet the public is still largely unaware of these efforts because they are not actively publicized enough. Teitelbaum later said the information on repatriated objects are online but it seemed like no one knew of that resource.

The traveling exhibition in Japan, replica kimono and all, was a huge success while the same event caused an uproar in Boston, even though it was a conceptual joint effort by the Museum of Fine Arts, an American institution, and many museums in Japan. Seeing the success the event had, largely due to the kimono, the MFA wanted to allow it’s viewers the, perhaps once in a lifetime, opportunity to also wear a kimono and experience the painting in a new way. It has been proven that tactile experiences provide more vivid and memorable experiences for visitors. The MFA is no stranger to tactile and alternative modes of education with its multitudinous events for children and adults alike as museums try to actively engage their audience for positive outreach.[24] The public is proven to be less patient and generally less interested in intuitions like art museums. So how do art museums plan to stay relevant and enticing to individuals who are flooded with millions of colorful images every day? Many art museums have turned to fun, interactive exhibitions since it is clear, most of the public is no longer interested in images that hang on a wall. Exhibits in it of themselves can be controversial and when take it upon themselves to illustrate or show a different viewpoints, they consciously invite controversy.[25] The MFA’s “Kimono Wednesdays” tried appeal to Japanese nationalists, Monet enthusiasts, and everyone in between. A sign next to the exhibition encouraged people to take photos and post them online with the hashtag #mfaboston so the popularity could be exponentially shared however the museum would soon find that the publicity they would receive is not one they would like or even expect.

The real catalyst for the protest to gain as much attention as it did was not at the museum itself but a place that could almost be considered a different dimension that museums have yet to harness the full potential – the internet. The MFA encouraged participants to post their pictures of “Kimono Wednesday” with the hashtag #mfaboston! However, where there was one protestor or counter-protestor holding up each their own signs at the MFA, hundreds more were tweeting, sharing, reposting and commenting on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. Internet protestors created groups online “StandAgainsYellowFace” and “DecolonizeOurMuseums” and it wasn’t long thereafter that the museum’s own Facebook page, advertising the spotlight talk and event, became flooded with angry and appalled accusations. As the protests grew, the accusations and claims grew bolder, using hashtags, such as #whitesupresmacykills, that are reminiscent of, and often paired with, hashtags used for the advancement of the African-American cause such as #blacklivesmatter, which is often used in response to police brutality or shootings. While it may seem like a stretch to use phrases often associated with death in a protest about a piece of clothing, the protestor’s use of the phrase does speak to how deeply they feel about the subject. Asians are one of the many minority groups in the United States and while they have been labeled as the “model minority” since 1965 with the influx of highly educated Asian immigrants, Asian-Americans and Asians in America have not had the most pleasant past.[26] They have had immigration restrictions and bans, and the Japanese have been placed in internment camps after the Pearl Harbor bombing as a part of America’s “yellow scare.” The protestors’ uncompromising manner and strong language should be an indicator of how deep racism is still felt within the Asian community in America.

Museums are institutions of incredible power. Since their first conception and creation, they have stood for one of the ultimate symbols of society and humankind. However because of this power, art museums have a duty – to accurately portray and inform the public of all its diversity and uniqueness museums face and while art museums have undoubtedly evolved over 300 years, the responses to the MFA’s “Kimono Wednesday” serves as a strong reminder of how far museums have yet to go. For some individuals, with the growing diversification of cultures, comes the need to keep cultural and its artifacts, pure and to not be misused or mistreated in any way. However these opinions and possible accusations of cultural appropriation are always contextual and sometimes subjective to not only “insiders” and “outsiders” of a culture, but sometimes within “insiders” themselves as seen by the counter-protestors. The MFA’s use of a kimono was thought by many of the protestors to be cultural appropriation. However some saw it as appreciation, a tool for education and, for some, a once in a lifetime opportunity. An argument can be made that the kimono itself is a hybrid of French and Japanese culture but the public would not have known its history unless they had extensive prior knowledge of the painting and world history – of which a synopsis could have been supplied by the museum. Although the MFA prides itself on its collection of Japanese works, the sense of inclusion does not extend to fellow Asian people. A Thai woman during the discussion panel admitted she’s never felt comfortable in an institution like the Museum of Fine Arts and posed questions and thoughts that dealt with the access museums have to histories that belong to a culture that may not have that access. Other people asked about repatriation, restitution and due diligence. When the director explained how the museum was already making steps toward those goals, the audience seemed confused as they were unaware of this fact, which was already available on the museum’s website. The public is constantly changing due to the evolution of society and in an age of fifteen seconds ads and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, how can museums and stoic and relatively old and traditional institution hope to stay “trendy”? In the hope to stay relevant and to garner as much as success as the museums in Japan, the MFA employed the draw of social media presence by using #mfaboston to publicize the event. However, the digital world did more harm than help for the MFA as it was the real catalyst for the protests. It grew, expanded and evolved to include language reminiscent of issues African Americans, another strong minority group that is also must deal with racism, misrepresentation and underrepresentation, in the United States, have involving death, injustice and police shootings.

Jasmine Hagans, curator of lectures, courses and concerts, acknowledged the complexity of contexts that institutions like art museums, need to be aware of, in the introduction of the MFA’s panel discussion: “The world keeps changing and moving forward and institutions, including art museums, need to constantly reexamine the context in which we are operating.”[27] Better contextualization and information would have greatly benefited the MFA in its attempt to provide the public with a new way of experiencing Monet’s painting. There was barely any supplemental information explaining the kimono and its history which was arguably the MFA’s downfall. It is conceivable that if the museum had made information more readily available, clear and easy to access by the public, then the museum could have avoided the severity of the protest. However, I do think regardless, a protest, of some size would have occurred as repatriation, cultural appropriation, and inclusion are topics all art museums are now facing. In the “ear of public challenge” the public has become more active and are not afraid of demanding the accountability of these institutions so perhaps it is better the MFA experience this outrage at their event. Controversy created from new discoveries, creations and interpretations are necessary as they stimulate the growth and learning of people, groups, institutions and society.[28] Ideally it will cause the institution to think more critically about the message they are inevitable sending out to the world with every exhibition, statement and event they create but it should not hinder or discourage the MFA from making “controversial” exhibitions. Museums are high points in the debates that characterize the nation’s transition from a single viewpoint and set of values to a discussion of tolerance and diversity and if there is no controversy, there is no growth.

[1] --, About the MFA, (Museum of Fine Arts, 2018) [2] --, Art of Asia, (Museum of Fine Arts, 2018), [3] --, Gallery, (Museum of Fine Arts, 2018), [4] Eliska Lebedova, The Opening of Japan, (West Bohemian Historical Review, 2016) [5] Colta Ives, Japonisme, (Department of Drawing and Prints, The Metroplotican Museum of Art, 2004), [6] Julie Valk, Research Note: The “Kimono Wednesday” Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More than Japanese, (Asian Ethnology, 2015), [7] --, Artwork, (Museum of Fine Arts, 2018), [8] --, Monet’s La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA, (Blogger, 2015), [9] --, Looking East, (Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec), [10] --, Monet’s La Japonaise Kimono Wednesdays at the MFA, (Blogger, 2015), [11] Julie Valk, Research Note: The “Kimono Wednesday” Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More than Japanese, (Asian Ethnology, 2015), [12] Mia Nakaji Monnier, MFA’s Kimono Controversy Should Spark Deeper Conversation (Boston Globe, 2015), [13] Greg Cook, MFA Director on Kimono Controversy: ‘I Think That was Misguided and Apologize’, (WBUR, 2016) [14] Stephanie McFeeters, Counter-Protesters Join Kimono Fray at MFA, (Boston Globe, 2015) [15] --, Kimono Wednesdays: A Conversation,(Museum of Fine Arts, 2015) [16] Stephanie McFeeters Kimono controversy erupts anew at MFA panel, (Boston Globe, 2015), [17] Erich Hatala Matthes, Cultural Appropriation Without Cultural Essentialism? (Florida State University Department of Philosophy, 2016), [18] Julie Valk, Research Note: The “Kimono Wednesday” Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More than Japanese, (Asian Ethnology, 2015), [19] Liza Dalby, 2001, 3 [20]Julie Valk, Research Note: The “Kimono Wednesday” Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More than Japanese, (Asian Ethnology, 2015), [21] Julie Valk, Research Note: The “Kimono Wednesday” Protests: Identity Politics and How the Kimono Became More than Japanese, (Asian Ethnology, 2015), [22] --, Decolonization of Asia, (Wikipedia), [23] Kimono Wednesdays: A conversation, (Youtuve MFA page, 2016), [24] Robert S. Fogarty, Editorial: The Future of Museums: Challenges and Solutions, (The Antoich Review. Vol 74, No. 2, 2016), [25] Willard L. Boyd, Museums as Centers of Controversy, (MIT Press, 1999), [26] Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and mainstreams: Asians in American history and culture (2014). [27] Kimono Wednesdays: A conversation, (Youtuve MFA page, 2016), [28] Willard L. Boyd, Museums as Centers of Controversy, (MIT Press, 1999),

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