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.
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!