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"Kimono selfie" at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston cancelled after accusations of Orientalism

It's 2015 and the selfie idea is dead. Though, not in the annoying social media oh-god-that's-been-sooo-done way that you might have expected. No, this time it's because the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston went out of their way to try and engage the museum patrons, in the era of the selfie, by lending them a bright red kimono so that they may pose in front of Monet's "La Japonaise." as Monet's muse. An idea sure to attract instagram egos and art students.

All hell broke lose when Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, posted the above photo to their facebook page announcing that you could "channel your inner Camille #Monet and try on a replica of the kimono she's wearing in "La Japonaise." Every Wednesday night June 24-July 29". Of course they also had a hastag, #mfaBoston, which quickly devolved into a stream of protests, accusations of orientalism and extra-tagged with #whitesupremacykills.

Here are a few tweets showing protesters silently holding signs, as art students are sketching a live model, challenging themselves to be as good as Monet with the opportunity of seeing the same red silk as the one that inspired Monet. I bet that was an awkward hour of sketching. I wonder if any of the students captured the whole scene? That might make a good painting and social commentary on 2015.

So after all these protests, the MFA recasts kimono idea, just days after the twitter & facebook storm erupted. The MFA issued this statement:

When the MFA’s painting, La Japonaise by Claude Monet, travelled throughout Japan for an exhibition, historically accurate reproduction kimonos were made for visitors to try on. When the painting returned to Boston and a similar program was introduced at the MFA, we heard concerns from some members of our community, and as a result, we’ve decided to change our programming. The kimonos will now be on display in the Impressionist gallery every Wednesday evening in July for visitors to touch and engage with, but not to try on. This allows the MFA to continue to achieve the program’s goal of offering an interactive experience with the kimonos—understanding their weight and size, and appreciating the embroidery, material, and narrative composition. We will also increase the number of Spotlight Talks presented by MFA educators, to take place every Wednesday evening in July in conjunction with the display of the kimonos. The talks provide context on French Impressionism, “japonisme,” and the historical background of the painting, as well as an opportunity to engage in culturally sensitive discourse. We apologize for offending any visitors, and welcome everyone to participate in these programs on Wednesday evenings, when Museum admission is free. We look forward to continuing the Museum’s long-standing dialogue about the art, culture and influence of Japan.

Notice that it was when the painting by Monet travelled throughout Japan that the historically accurate reproduction kimonos were made to be worn by visitors. It's not racist or imperialist if someone outside of Boston engages with the artwork in a more tactile manner? Or is this perhaps a lesson in social media protests ability to disrupt pretty much anything, including a quiet Wednesday at the fine art museum.

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Dabitch's picture

I'll leave this video here in the comments, as it sums up what I already knew from experience and Japanese friends - When are foreigners allowed to wear kimono?

Bob's picture

Are you freaking kidding me with this video? "That's a very Japanese thing. They won't even tell you you're wearing it wrong." --And THAT'S NOT RACIST?

Bob's picture

Never mind... didn't watch it all the way through. The video makes a lot of sense.

Dabitch's picture

I believe our current outrage climate is partly caused by the tendency to jump in after only reading a headline, or watching the first few moments of a video.... The instant reply-ability we now have means we speed through the reading & understanding moments, and thus we hardly have a chance to learn or form an informed opinion. Thanks for continuing to watch the video shared by the Japanese+American couple, it's the one video I found with the best cross cultural insight from both angles.