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Tensions, questions at MFA’s reconfigured ‘Kimono Wednesdays’

Timothy Nagaoka showing his support for the original “Kimono Wednesdays” program at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Stephanie McFeeters for The Boston Globe
Timothy Nagaoka showing his support for the original “Kimono Wednesdays” program at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The mood in the Impressionist gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Wednesday evening was slightly tense as dozens of visitors gathered for a reconfigured “Kimono Wednesdays” event. Many had questions about the kimonos on display next to Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise,” and following a talk about the painting, visitors asked “Spotlight” speaker Wendy Dodek to explain the MFA’s change in programming.

The museum had originally invited visitors to try on kimonos and pose for photos next to the 1876 painting, which depicts Monet’s wife wearing a kimono as a commentary on Parisians’ craze for all things Japanese. But protests criticizing “Kimono Wednesdays” as racist led the museum to alter the program, scheduled to run throughout July. On Tuesday, the museum announced it would continue to display kimonos “for visitors to touch and engage with, but not to try on.”

Isabella Bulkeley, a public relations associate at the museum, said that Dodek aimed in her talk to emphasize the painting’s historical context.

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Throughout the evening, a group of about a dozen people who opposed the event milled about, with some engaging visitors and posing questions to museum staff about Monet’s intentions, Orientalism, and the way the event was framed. The group had brought fliers outlining some of their complaints, but at the request of museum staff, they did not distribute them.

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Staging a personal counter-protest, Timothy Nagaoka, 37, who teaches Japanese to fourth and fifth graders in Boston public schools, said he was upset that the MFA is no longer letting guests try on the kimonos.

“I had marked my calendar,” he said. “I think it would have been a great opportunity for my students.”

Wearing a yukata, which he described as a cotton summer kimono for men, Nagaoka held a variety of signs. “Wearing a kimono does not make me a racist or an imperialist,” one read. Another quoted Taylor Swift: “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate.”

“Any attention on Japan is a good thing,” he said, explaining his support for the original program. “This painting celebrates the fascination that French Impressionists had.”

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At one point, Nagaoka and the group opposing the event, along with other visitors, gathered in a doorway of the gallery, and the conversation became slightly heated. “You don’t understand anything about art,” one man said as he passed through. To which someone responded, “Check your privilege.”

Ames Siyuan, 26, of Cambridge, said she was disappointed by the way the museum was handling the event.

She said she was particularly frustrated by what she perceived as a lack of knowledge about the kimono in “La Japonaise,” citing the limited information the speaker was able to provide about the kimono design’s significance.

“It has not been a place for dialogue,” she said, explaining that she had been told by a security guard to keep quiet. “I want more people to question the painting.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at stephanie.mcfeeters@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mcfeeters.