With roughly 200 people piled into the Museum of Fine Arts’ Remis Auditorium on Sunday, MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum introduced the afternoon’s program with what can only be described as a rarity among museum directors in the institution’s 145-year history: a public apology.
“I want to start with an acknowledgment and an apology,” Teitelbaum said by way of presenting a panel discussion on “Kimono Wednesdays,” the controversial program last summer that invited museum visitors to don replica kimonos while standing before Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise,” a painting that depicts the artist’s wife wearing a blond wig and sumptuous red kimono. “We titled the program ‘Flirting With the Exotic,’” Teitelbaum said. “That was misguided, and I apologize for sensationalizing an important issue.”
The director’s apology for the original “Kimono Wednesday” program, which actually took place before he arrived as the MFA’s new director in August, drew a round of applause.
But if the audience appreciated Teitelbaum’s remorse, passions remained raw at “Kimono Wednesdays: A Conversation,” a wide-ranging and sometimes heated panel discussion and Q&A hosted by the MFA to address fallout from last summer’s event. After the original outcry last summer, the MFA reconfigured its “Kimono Wednesdays” program, but protests and counter-protests continued as the program repeated through July.
“The event only replicated what Monet was supposedly criticizing without interrupting the racist legacy of the painting or any criticality of orientalism both in Monet’s time or in our own,” said Xtina Huilan Wang, a panelist who protested last summer’s program.
“La Japonaise” is considered by scholars to be Monet’s wry commentary on an 1870s Parisian craze for all things Japanese.
During the two-hour discussion, attendees took broad aim at Teitelbaum and the museum, accusing it of white supremacy, trafficking in racial stereotypes, and insufficiently grappling with its post-colonial legacy.
“I’m wondering how we can face the past and acknowledge that this is a site and institution of white supremacy and go from there,” said one audience member, addressing Teitelbaum. “I walked though the Africa wing to get here, and I’m just wondering where’s the accountability for every piece?”
Elena Tajima Creef, a women’s and gender studies professor at Wellesley College who moderated the discussion, said that the Monet painting invoked racial stereotypes related to blackface.
“Images like Camille Monet playing in a blond wig in dress-up in a [kimono] seem very pleasurable and benign, but I want to say there is of course a whole spectrum in the way that racial costuming and dress-up and yellowface/blackface operates,” she said. “I would put the Monet painting somewhere on that spectrum.”
Meanwhile, another audience member, who identified herself as Thai, said she’d never felt comfortable in institutions like the MFA “because of how I look.”
“I’d like to know if the museum does now or intends to have conversations about what it means to have access to histories of people who maybe don’t even have access to their own history,” she asked.
Some of the panelists and audience members appeared unaware of the museum’s ongoing efforts to examine the provenances of objects in its collection. Those efforts have resulted in several high-profile objects being returned to their origin countries.
“Can you make that public somehow?” Wang said.
“It’s on our website,” Teitelbaum said. “We do actively look at the provenance of all the works that we’re acquiring at the highest standard of any North American art museum.”
Teitelbaum, who was repeatedly heckled by audience members, appeared visually shaken at times by the term white supremacy. In one particularly tense exchange with an audience member, he refused to answer a question about the museum’s endowment and the racial composition of its board of directors.
“I’m not getting where you’ll go with my answers,” he said, suggesting that such information was publicly available and offering to discuss it after the event. “I don’t want to answer.”
Wang, who often dominated the discussion, interrupting audience members and other panelists, tried to define white supremacy more broadly.
“White supremacy is a kind of invisible swaddling of whiteness and white culture that pervades everywhere,” she said. “It’s not just saluting Hitler or whatever. The word supremacy means it is supreme. It’s what surrounds us. It is what determines our values....I do think in fact this institution is one that participates in the larger system of white supremacy even if skinheads aren’t running the show.”
Teitelbaum did find some allies among counter-protesters in the audience. “Isn’t it stereotyping on the protesters’ part to say that kimono represents Japan and to put so much weight into just wearing a kimono?” said Timothy Nagaoka, a counter-protester who teaches Japanese to Boston elementary school students. “For a Japanese person, kimono is just clothing, and there’s really nothing sacred to it. And I feel it’s the protesters who placed the kimono up on a pedestal.”
Some panelists also took a less combative stance. Independent scholar Reiko Tomii, for instance, discussed the cultural history and uses of the kimono and described the Japanese response to the controversy.
“As far as I know they are very puzzled,” said Tomii. “The Boston museum missed a great opportunity to highlight their collections, which can be very teachable.”
Other panelists included scholar Ryan Wong and Barbara Lewis, who directs the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Teitelbaum said he was listening to the audience’s grievances, but thought the term white supremacy was “a bit mischievous.”
“I don’t accept the white supremacy label, but I do accept what you’re saying, that collections are fraught with many histories,” he said.
“What I would hope out of this — and I’m listening carefully, because this is just what I need to hear — [is] that we will find ways to engage with communities and individuals, thought leaders, who want to help us interpret works of art in our space.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.
Clarification: This story was updated to more accurately reflect the remarks made by Xtina Huilan Wang.