By Irina Tarsis, Esq.*
Self-censorship by museums is a dangerous trend. In the July/August issue of The Art Newspaper, Maurice Davies, of the Museum Consultancy and senior research fellow in the Department of Management at King’s College London, explores several instances in recent history where museums worldwide engaged in self-censorship to the detriment of the public. On this humid summer day, we ask, shouldn’t museums leave self-censorship to artists and trigger-happy public? Museums focus so much of their attention on self-censorship, yet leave other areas of museum administration exposed. Self-assessment should occur across all aspects of museum administration, such as encouraging provenance research, decreasing disparity in staff compensation and developing best practices for borrowing and lending art works. Otherwise it seems that museums tend to fight tooth and nail over keeping contested art works in their collections, in efforts that are more costly than brainstorming creative solutions to attract visitors to the exhibition halls or address historical and social injustices.
Whereas Davies’ article focuses on self-censorship due to security fears, and controversial material that includes nudity, racial, or political representations, the recent public outcry against “Kimono Wednesdays” in front of the 1876 Claude Monet’s “La Japonaise/Camille Monet in Japanese Costume” at the Museum of Fine Art collection in Boston is but another instance where public outrage is misplaced as more important issues remain overlooked. What is truly shocking is that there are plenty of outrageous art-related displays that deserve the flagellation of the public. Somehow these manifestations do not encounter the same adamant resistance, leave little impact on museums, yet tend to be more offensive.
“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.” [From the editor: “Minstrelsy – a 19th century form of entertainment developed in the US that included musical, comic and variety acts performed by either white people in blackface or by black people.] Thus begins just one of dozens of articles, this by The Boston Globe staffer, Malcolm Gay, on the topic of the failed experiment at interactivity at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (the “MFA”) involving a kimono dress-up in front of a Monet portrait.
The irony of the situation of course is that this very same Monet painting recently returned from an exhibit in Japan, entitled “Looking East: Western Artists and the Allure of Japan” where “historically accurate reproduction kimonos were made for visitors to try on.” Yet, a similar program at the progressive Massachusetts museum faced an exceedingly critical public reaction from concerned visitors and activists. The MFA chose to diffuse the controversy by canceling the dress-up element of the display instead of using this opportunity to tackle the misconceptions surrounding the idea of cultural appropriation.
The decision to scrap the benign kimono project is disturbing because museums are meant to be educational forums where different manifestations of creativity and creative types inform the public about the past and safeguard it for the future. It is universally accepted that artists frequently explore and borrow ideas and iconography from different cultures and other artists. Just as Eastern Art experimented with “Western” conventions of painting landscapes to show perspective and integrated Western dress into portraiture, artifacts of Asian, African, South American art and culture, including fans, kimonos, masks, patterns, ceramics, etc. were and continue being frequently incorporated themes in Western artworks, with varying success.
What was the intent of the MFA in allowing visitors to try a kimono? To offend? To discriminate? Unlikely. The Museum is open for free on Wednesday nights to be accommodating and inclusive. Making kimono available on Wednesday nights for photo-ops in front of a festive 19th century Impressionist painting was anything but racist. By allowing their visitors to don a replica kimono, the MFA probably wanted to capitalize on social media use in museums. Even the White House, lifted its ban of taking photos on the tours, arguably recognizing that the technology and the inexplicable need to snap pictures with one’s phone at every turn, on every tour and in every location, will happen whether they are banned or not.
The lesson learned from the MFA bungle, is perhaps what is fashionable is not always classy. Davies concludes his article with a suggestion that “museums could push at the edges of the law” and they should help address difficult contemporary events and social divides rather than shy away from this role. In instances such as the “Kimono Wednesdays”, we counsel museums to be more discriminating in handling public reactions. On the house.
- Maurice Davies, “Self-censoring museums have to be Brave,” The Art Newspaper (July/Aug 2015), 40.
- Malcolm Gay, “MFA recasts kimono days after complaints of stereotyping,” The Boston Globe (Jul. 7, 2015), available at https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/style/2015/07/07/mfa-backs-down-over-kimono-event-response-protests/lv9NHcnpW0lsRE77d9hvkI/story.html
- MFA Press Release, [July 2015] http://www.mfa.org/news/2015/july
- Casey Quackenbush, “MFA Boston Cancels Kimono Dress Up After Allegations of Racism,” Observer (July 9, 2015)
available at http://observer.com/2015/07/mfa-boston-cancels-kimono-dress-up-after-allegations-of-racism/#ixzz3fyHO8zjY
- Jeff Michael Hammond, “How Japan’s art inspired the West,” The Japan Times (n.d., 2014) available at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/08/14/arts/how-japans-art-inspired-the-west/#.VaZxiJNViko
About the Author: This editorial is by Irina Tarsis, art lawyer and Founder and Director of Center for Art Law.