Kimono Wednesdays and the Power of Dressing Up

posted in: Education, Museums, Textiles | 4

 

A few days ago, a captioned photo popped up in my news feed from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (below) of an unidentified patron posing in a replica kimono in front of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise.” I was unsure how to feel about it. I was at once interested and excited, wary and cringing.

 

MFA.LaJaponaisePhoto credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston via Facebook

 

On one hand, it was exciting to see the aesthetic and tactile power of a textile providing visitors such a strong means of connection to a work of art. In my wildest dreams of exhibition planning, there is always a budget to replicate pieces of relevant historic clothing so that visitors can try on the story for themselves and gain an intimate,  hands-on point of entry from which to engage with the rest of the exhibition content. In my wildest museum going dreams, big institutions like the MFA loosen their collars a bit and incorporate interactive activities in the galleries to facilitate other learning styles.

 

On the other hand, why encourage (mostly white) visitors to don culturally sensitive clothing and pose, reenacting the distasteful elements of Japonism (the wholesale and often vacuous Victorian fascination with “Oriental” culture via the consumption of “exotic” material goods from Japan and China)? Why did the MFA not recognize how this could be perceived as insensitive? Why is it considered blasphemy for a museum to acknowledge the complex historical context of a beloved artist’s work as if that somehow diminishes its artistic merits? Can’t museums and visitors alike gain by capitalizing upon the museum as a safe space to confront and digest difficult topics as a community?

 

We all understand the ritual of getting dressed and how clothes can communicate something about us to the world whether our choices in apparel are restrictive or unlimited. We face the power of clothing each and every morning so it makes absolute sense for a museum to draw a connection between something so relatable to something in their collections. I am pleased to see a large museum trying out a simple but powerful interactive in its traditional gallery spaces. Given the power of clothing however, and the role of the museum as an inclusive community meeting ground, it is crucial for museum professionals to understand that certain items of clothing are simply inappropriate for the kind of dress-up box activity that took place at the MFA’s “Kimono Wednesdays.” Moreover, no matter how lovely a work of art or historic object may be, it is irresponsible to perpetuate the cultural appropriation immortalized in such works instead of cultivating an environment in which staff and visitors alike can confront these difficult issues with honesty and respect. The concept behind the activity itself is an exciting one, but some items of clothing are so robust with religious, cultural, and personal meaning that allowing them to be worn out of context is deeply disrespectful. When replica garments are included in an exhibition for visitors to interact with, it is crucial they be evaluated with this in mind. It is crucial that meaningful context be provided to allow the visitor to move from an initial physical understanding of an object to an intellectual and emotional understanding. If not, museums risk the goodwill and trust of their communities—their greatest assets.

 

Was the MFA offering such opportunities before protestors spoke up? It is not entirely clear, but from the Facebook post above, it seems those conversations were not at the forefront of the intended experience. As the situation unfolded at the MFA, small protests in the museum gave rise to a tide of online dissent, and, in a leaked internal memo, the MFA sidestepped any culpability, denying the racist undertones of the event and insisting that the experience, “provides an opportunity for visitors to consider how heavy the robe is; how it feels to wear it; what choices the artist made in creating the pose; and how he used paint to capture the effects of the textile.” True enough, the experience does accomplish that. However, it also provides an opportunity for the visitor to perpetuate the distillation of a culture into a mere exotic prop or plaything.

 

It’s unclear whether Monet himself was thoroughly and/or thoughtlessly evoking Japonism or whether he might have been poking fun at the way western civilizations were consuming and exoticizing Asian cultures at the time. The piece t is not unlike Whistler’s The Balcony in the way it capriciously deploys elements of Eastern cultures as stage props and stands as a somewhat awkward piece in the artist’s portfolio—not because it is not beautiful but because it comes off more as an eccentric pastiche rather than a dynamic synthesis. In his article for ArtNet.com, Brian Boucher points to the the work of the art historian Jeff Michael Hammond in the Japan Times who notes that, “We can see why Monet dismissed it later as simply ‘a whim,’ with his other works showing an assimilation of Japanese aesthetic practices at a deeper level.”

 

I think it is possible to recognize Monet’s skill as a painter while also acknowledging how this work, and others of the period, serve as a historic documents, proof of a nuanced and, oftentimes, volatile conversation between cultures during the Meiji Restoration. Recent events at the MFA represent the another chapter of this conversation and I hope that the museum will use this opportunity to honor the continuing narrative as well as Japanese culture on a deeper level going forward, just as the artists themselves aspired to, most successfully in their later works. As their mission states, I hope they will continue to, “engage people with direct encounters with works of art, and to be an inclusive and welcoming place for all.” As a field, museum professionals are known for being proud lifelong learners, so I write this in the hopes that I too can keep an open mind and approach difficult topics with humility and grace so that I might better understand perspectives outside the realm of my own experience and background. In doing so, I think we can get closer to fulfilling those wonderfully noble missions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Responses

  1. The online dissent actually came first – that’s what gave rise to the protests. Two separate groups of friends met at the museum and formed the protest group. I personally don’t see any racist undertones to the event and have far more problems with the protesters than I do with the MFA, though I agree the event could have been better planned. The replica uchikake were made expressly for the purpose of the public being able to try on the costume (Camille Monet’s was originally a costume) so there’s no there’s no robust religious, cultural, and personal meaning and they’re not being worn out of context for what they were intended for. There’s a lot about the event and the uchikake themselves that the protesters didn’t seem aware of when they first started protesting and even after these things were brought to their attention they dismissed it and pressed on with their white supremacist narrative.

    I just published a postmortem you might find interesting. There are links at the bottom of the post to the rest of my coverage which might help answer some of your questions.

    http://japaneseamericaninboston.blogspot.com/2015/08/part-1-kimono-wednesdays-protest.html

  2. Thank you for your comment Keiko—I have read some of what you’ve written on your blog and really appreciated your insight and detailed documentation of the timeline and individuals involved. I was aware the protest started online and then moved to the galleries of the MFA, but was trying to emphasize how much bigger it became on social media/news outlets after that point, which is when I originally came upon it and wrote this article. I see how that was not as clear as it could be and am glad for the chance to confirm and clarify that.

    Having had the opportunity to observe the relationships between people and objects in museums close-up over the years, I’ve seen how clothing can carry cultural, religious, or personal meaning whether or not a garment is an original, costume, or replica. Of course, it is implied meaning rather than explicit and, as is so often the case, so much meaning is wrapped up in nuance and context. Because museums marginalized non-white cultures as “exotic” and “other” for so long, there’s definitely an impetus for museum professionals to now be more aware of both implied and explicit/direct and indirect messages in relation to issues of race/culture/religion. Indeed, it was impressed upon me in grad school that, as caretakers of culture, we have a duty to be more critical of how we communicate with diverse audiences through exhibitions; how we interpret and present the value of objects and their meanings. My motivation, therefore, was to try and consider this situation from various perspectives and participate in a wider conversation within the museum field. For the record, I don’t think this event was malicious or racist in any way either. I love the fundamental concept of progressive educational activities in museums (and the MFA for that matter) and the idea that trying on clothes can convey meaning. I do find it difficult to deny that it was missing some crucial context that left this event flirting, even unintentionally, with a basic level of fetishism and commodification of exoticism that I thought was, at the very least, distasteful. In retrospect, that is what I originally meant by the term, “racist undertones,” and I hope I have clarified that to some extant as I see that my original wording was not exactly right.

    Thank you again for sharing you thoughts and the thorough investigation into this matter you posted on your blog—it certainly helped me to think about it from a number of different perspectives!

  3. Hi there! I reread my first comment and realized that I completely forgot to say thank you for writing this. I think you’re the first museum professional I’ve heard anything from other than MFA staff.

    Also, re: the woman in the photo, I forgot to mention she’s not a patron, she was the model they used for the publicity photo. I believe I read or heard somewhere that she’s an MFA staffer but can’t find the source. NHK used Japanese models in Japan:
    http://www.museum.or.jp/modules/topNews/index.php?page=article&storyid=3196

    “Having had the opportunity to observe the relationships between people and objects in museums close-up over the years, I’ve seen how clothing can carry cultural, religious, or personal meaning whether or not a garment is an original, costume, or replica.”

    Very interesting. Do you think people react to garments differently than other objects?

    “Indeed, it was impressed upon me in grad school that, as caretakers of culture, we have a duty to be more critical of how we communicate with diverse audiences through exhibitions; how we interpret and present the value of objects and their meanings.”

    Do you have any idea if that was typical for museum studies at the time you were in school or if your program was more aware of these issues than others?

    “I do find it difficult to deny that it was missing some crucial context that left this event flirting, even unintentionally, with a basic level of fetishism and commodification of exoticism that I thought was, at the very least, distasteful.”

    As someone who has been fetishized by even some of the people I’ve dated, I sort of understand this point but on the other hand I feel like assuming that foreign dress, and specifically kimono always equals fetishization is somewhat simplistic. I guess in the context of the painting where Camille is clearly flirting it makes it more complicated but if you saw the portly older gentleman who was confronted by the protesters while wearing one of the uchikake… I don’t look at that and think Asian fetish. I see curiosity and engagement with art. I feel like sometimes people look too deeply for meaning and offense where there is none. Most people I talked to (from France to Japan) seem to view japonisme in a positive light. For those who view it negatively I feel like it was 130 years ago. I think it’s time to move on. The fascination was (and I would say still is) a 2-way street:
    http://qz.com/473721/150-year-old-images-reveal-what-japanese-artists-once-thought-about-exotic-american-visitors/

    Today Japanese young people are appropriating American/Western styles – everything from French maids to rockabilly to hip hop culture (if you do a Google image search for Japan and any of these words you’ll find lots of pictures). People act like White America has the corner on the market of offensively fetishizing other cultures but I’ve come to think it’s just human nature.

  4. It’s helpful to understand that the woman in that particular Facebook image was a chosen model and that the models used in Japan were themselves Japanese.

    I don’t want to make any sweeping statement, but I think that, often, people can more easily relate with garments as opposed to other kinds of objects because, no matter their expertise about various kinds of art/artifacts, everyone has some intimate knowledge about how clothes work simply because we each go through that process of choosing and wearing them each day. We know they project messages about status and wealth (or lack thereof) whether we are conscious of it or not.

    I can’t speak for all museum programs, but from what I have observed as a recent graduate, many graduate programs I’m familiar with (as well as independent museum professionals who I look to as thought leaders in the field), are very passionate and active in shaping an ongoing discussion about the intersection of museums/race/curatorial authority/acknowledging privilege, etc. There is a growing body of literature on these subjects but also a rich online community that I myself benefit from greatly as I strive to learn more. I would recommend any of the following twitter accounts to learn more: @aleiabrown, @lindabnorris, @juliegpeterson , @raineytisdale, @2brwngirls, or @incluseum to name just a few.

    I don’t want to assume that all examples of kimono are fetishized and I hope it did not come across that way. I do think there is a vague element of that in Monet’s original painting which is why this particular situation first stood out to me. I think issues of race and indentity are complex and discussions around them often suffer from over-simplification. It’s altogether possible the older gentlemen you reference was indeed showing a genuine interest in art but I wonder if he, or others, would continue to do so in such a way if they had more information about the history of western artists exoticizing and commodifying elements of Eastern cultures. I am grateful for your perspective and understand what you are saying. As a historian however, I understand that “moving on” does not always help me to help museum visitors have a productive and edifying experience. The past can always inform the present in a powerful and valuable way.

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