In an episode that speaks volumes about cultural institutions, ethnic sensitivity, and the power of protest in the digital age, the Museum of Fine Arts is hastily pulling back on an event that protesters labeled a latter-day form of racist minstrelsy.
MFA officials announced Tuesday they would recast “Kimono Wednesdays,” an attraction scheduled to run throughout July. It is extremely rare for the MFA to change exhibition plans in the wake of protests; it appears such action had not been taken for decades.
Created as a light summer distraction, “Kimono Wednesdays” invited visitors to “channel your inner Camille Monet” by donning museum-provided kimonos and posing for photos in front of Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise,” a painting of the artist’s wife wearing a kimono.
But the event quickly raised the hackles of protesters, who charged that the museum was perpetuating racist stereotypes by presenting Asian culture as quintessentially exotic.
Monet’s 1876 painting, which shows his wife, Camille, wearing a blazing red kimono, is thought to be the artist’s wry commentary on the craze for all things Japanese that swept Parisian art circles in the 1870s. Surrounded by fans, Camille posed in a blond wig, an intentional choice to highlight her European descent.
“It was very successful in Japan, and we wanted to provide an opportunity to further the visitor experience in Boston,” said Getchell, who added that the MFA presented an educational talk on the event’s inaugural night. “People really appreciated the opportunity to see the kimonos, to try it on, to feel it, to appreciate its craftsmanship, and to think about what it would be like for a Parisian woman to have worn that at the time for her husband to paint her.”
In its statement, the MFA acknowledged the protesters’ concerns and hoped the programming change would further dialogue.
“We hope that it will be an opportunity to achieve our original goal to understand the artwork and the culture of its time,” said Getchell. “We didn’t intend to offend.”