Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the 1940s and ’50s, Johnnetta Cole ’57 had never even heard of anthropology, much less imagined that she’d make a career out of it.
“I thought I would be a pre-med major,” Cole says. “And because of the time, I didn’t think I would be a neurosurgeon or a cardiologist — I would be a baby doctor. Which, of course, is a way of capturing what notions were in those days of the limitations of women.”
Thankfully for Cole — who defied those limitations, graduated from Oberlin with a degree in sociology, and hasn’t looked back — she soon came under the tutelage of George Eaton Simpson, an Oberlin professor of sociology and anthropology. His guidance helped her to find her way to Northwestern University, where she earned a master’s degree and a PhD in anthropology.
“I really credit Oberlin for giving me something that I think was a sterling preparation to be an anthropologist and a public intellectual,” says Cole. “I grew up in the South. I grew up without the right to go to museums. And I still remember the day I walked into the Allen Memorial Art Museum. What happened to me because of art was quite revolutionary.”
During the span of her career, Cole has served as the first female African American president of Spelman College and as president of Bennett College for Women, taught undergraduate anthropology, served on both corporate and non profit boards, and has earned 55 honorary degrees and numerous awards along the way. Cole credits her genre-spanning career to her liberal arts education.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say I got prepared to do most of the things I’ve done professionally at Oberlin,” says Cole. “My education is what has allowed me to be a practicing anthropologist, a professor, a college president, a museum director — because the basic stuff is there.”
In 2009, Cole became director of the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), one of the 19 museums under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Prior to and even leading up to her appointment, however, Cole never imagined herself as a museum director.
“I’m an anthropologist, not an art historian,” Cole recalls telling Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s under secretary for history, art, and culture, when he suggested she be a candidate for the directorship. “I don’t have a PhD in the right field, nor am I a curator.” They had curators, Kurin said — what they needed was a leader.
“And the rest was history,” Cole says. “Or, as we would say, herstory.”
On campus in early February for a Convocation Series event entitled “Identities & Art: Who am I and What is it?,” Cole was joined by Ghanaian-British-American cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton University and former president of the PEN American Center, in a discussion about the ways in which we relate to and understand art.
“We relate to art through our identities, but also through being different from the people who made it,” says Appiah, who serves on the advisory board of the NMAfA. “So there’s always a way to relate to art, even if it has nothing to do with what you came from. There’s no reason to limit yourself. For most of us humans, the more cosmopolitan attitude is more exciting. It’s a source of interesting pleasure and engagement.”
This was not the first time that Cole and Appiah spoke on the topic of art and identities; their first conversation took place in 2011 as the first installment of the Smithsonian’s Director’s Discussion Series, in which Cole engages public figures in discussion about art. Cole’s recent guests have included chef Marcus Samuelsson and author Maya Angelou.
During their Oberlin conversation, Appiah stressed the need for a culture to be forever changing and evolving, especially when it comes to art.
“I think if a culture stops doing that, it’s essentially died,” says Appiah. “You can’t just curate the past.”
Nevertheless, curating the past is an important step of maintaining identities, and that’s where museums come into play. Appiah — a member of the board of trustees of ARTstor, an online digital image library — is in favor of the widespread sharing and digitalization of objects; but for both him and Cole, looking at a photograph can’t come close to the experience of being face to face with a work of art.
“That is an experience that we’re not going to get any other way,” says Cole. “Even though in the interest of access we can digitalize our collections, I don’t think we should deny ourselves that — and this is a word I must use very cautiously — unique experience of interacting with an object.”
As museums are curating collections, they must focus on simultaneously curating an audience for those objects.
“There’s no sense to it if you aren’t transmitting the understanding that will make the next generation want to care for these objects,” Appiah says. “The most important thing we can do is make sure that if we value them, we create a community that values them, a reservoir of support, knowledge, and engagement with the collections.”
For the NMAfA and other Smithsonian museums, that community building comes through education, an initiative Cole takes very seriously.
“I think that a museum, no matter how exquisitely it presents exhibitions, is really falling short of what it can and should do without some degree of outreach and an education program,” says Cole. The NMAfA accomplishes this with the Studio Africa Project, which connects public school students in Washington, D.C., to African art and culture through workshops and performances. Cole also hopes that some of NMAfA’s education happens naturally during everyday museum visits as guests come face to face with works of art.
“For those of us who spend our lives in universities and intellectual settings, we have got to remember that a lot of the information that we find so fundamental, so basic — a lot of folks don’t command that,” says Cole. “And how elitist of us to deny others the joy of that information! Museums, therefore, as places that we hope are more accessible than universities, ought to be providing the joy of discovery.”
To learn more about the NMAfA, visit the museum’s website.