In what the Boston institution hoped would be a controversy come full circle, the Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday led an expert think-in on “Kimono Wednesdays.”
The MFA attracted criticism last year when it offered to let museum-goers try on a decorative Japanese garment in front of Claude Monet’s painting “La Japoinaise.”
The offering struck some as an act of cultural appropriation, leading to protests and spurring a public apology from the museum’s staff. At the time, the MFA suspended the promotion, allowing viewers to touch, but not try on the kimono.
At the top of the program on Sunday, Museum Director Matthew Teitelbaum apologized on behalf of the MFA for the promo, and said the title of talks given at the museum surrounding the installation — which were called “Flirting With the Exotic” — was “misguided.”
He also pledged to involve a more diverse group of voices when deciding what goes on display at the MFA.
“I believe that the MFA must now and in its evolution be a great convening space for conversations,” he said, adding, “We are prepared as an institution to be judged by that engagement.”
Xtina Huilan Wang, of the group Decolonize Our Museums - and one of the museum’s chief critics during the “Kimono Wednesdays” debacle – was one of the event’s panelists.
“I was not there protesting the painting or the event itself,” Wang said, adding, “We should have a really honest, complicated conversation about why we chose to do that. And that was something that was totally lacking.”
She said she could “appreciate” apologies from the museum, and respected the MFA’s new stated commitment to dialogue.
But she said the museum still has questions to answer about “Kimono Wednesdays,” which she and other opponents saw as offensive and tone-deaf, and perhaps a symbol of bigger issues about how cultures are represented in museums everywhere.
“Race and representation, cultural context, influence and access were not being addressed during the Kimono Wednesday event and needed to be,” she said, explaining her goals for the talk.
The panel brought nearly 300 to the 380-seat Remis Auditorium. Tickets, which were free, sold out by the end of January.
Museum staff filmed the conversation, and planned to make it public in a few days.
Panelists covered a range of topics, from the ways kimonos appear in modern magazines to the role of blackface theater in American history.
Speaking to the crowd, panelist Ryan Lee Wong, writer and visiting scholar at New York University, questioned the environment that let “Kimono Wednesdays” happen, suggesting institutional racism was at play — meaning that the big, important decisions are often made without diverse voices.
“A lot of people had to sign off on this,” he said. “Institutional in this case means a lot of people looking at this and not finding anything wrong with it – or if they did find something wrong with it, maybe not having the space to express that, maybe because they weren’t in a position of power.”
Follow the conversation as it happened on Twitter via hashtag #whospeaks.
Audience member tells us she has never felt comfortable in "places like this." "I don't have access to my history," she says. #whospeaks— Margaret Middleton (@magmidd) February 7, 2016
Important reminder: Asians and Asian-Americans are NOT homogenous groups. There's a wide range of individual opinions. #whospeaks— Christopher Huang (@chr1shuang) February 7, 2016
What does it mean to "give way" to marginalized communities as Christina Wang insists museums do? There is no easy,finite answer. #WhoSpeaks— Jamie J. Hagen (@Jamiejhagen) February 7, 2016