Off The Cuff: Dr. Johnnette B. Cole, OC ’57, and Princeton University Professor of Philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah

Dr. Cole, what it was like to be a female Anthropology major in the ’50s?

Cole: Well, first I must say there was no Anthropology major in the years that I was at Oberlin. So I majored in Sociology, but I also majored in George Eaton Simpson. Which is to say that once I discovered anthropology, Professor Simpson really took me on as his student. So I did a great deal of independent study with him and, [as] I think still happens, I listened to my major professor. And when he said I should go from Oberlin to Northwestern to study with the famous [American Anthropologist] Melville J. Herskovitz, that’s what I did. But let me share with you that growing up in Jacksonville, FL, I had never heard of something called anthropology. So I really credit Oberlin with not only giving me what I think was a sterling preparation to be an anthropologist and a public intellectual; Oberlin introduced me to Anthropology. I thought I was a pre-med major.

Did you think you were going to be a doctor?

Cole: Of course! And, because of the times, I didn’t say, “Well I’m going to be a doctor; I’m going to be a neurosurgeon or I will be an internist or I will be a cardiologist.” Remember what time we’re talking about. I said, “I’m going to be a baby doctor.” Which of course, is a way of capturing what notions were in those days as to the limitations on women [and] the expectations of women.

Do you have an experience from your time at Oberlin that you hold dear to you?

Cole: I was a debater. In fact, it was my main extracurricular activity. And I was not so bad as a debater. And it was senior year, 1957 … We were to address the independence of Ghana, and I remember the moment, with great rhetorical flair, as I am trying to make my closing argument. And I said, “Ah, 1957. The independence of Ghana. And how disturbing it is, for me to realize that I will not see the independence of South Africa in my lifetime.” Where was my faith? … You have to keep renewing that ability to believe in change. And even in an idealistic, almost utopian intellectual environment like Oberlin, I had slipped. For the rest of the time that I got on Earth, I hope we do fewer and fewer slips.

What do you think informed your ability to perform as director of the Smithsonian?

Cole: I really think that it is not an exaggeration to say that I got prepared to do most of the things I’ve done professionally at Oberlin. And the reason is, I got a quality liberal arts education. And it sounds so, almost trite — it’s what you hear out of their admissions office when they go out to grab future Obies! But there is something to it. It’s what has allowed me to be a practicing anthropologist, a professor, a president, a museum director, because the basic stuff is there.

What is the one message from the convocation that you hope will get through to the students?

Appiah: My philosophy is that everything is more complicated than you thought … We relate to art through our identities but also through [what is] different from them, the people who made the art. So there’s always a way to relate to art, even if it has nothing to do with where you came from.

Cole: The message that I hope comes through tonight — actually, Kwame has already given it. [The relationship between art and identities is] just not going to be simple. It’s going to be all messed up! To try to pull apart, in the interest of, perhaps, ending up with more insight than we began.

Appiah: One thing artists do is … they invent new kinds of things to respond to … And I think if a culture stops doing that, it has essentially died. You can’t just curate the past.

What do you see as the most important part that ensures a museum’s success?

Appiah: I think what a museum has to do is, they need an agenda. But they don’t all need the same agenda. And the same museum can have different agendas on different days of the week for different shows … There are these arguments that go on between people who want to be more contextualizing and who want to give you lots of cultural background [on the art]. And there are people who want to … light [the art] well and let you feast your eyes on it. And my only difficulty with either of those points of view is if you think that there’s something wrong with the other one. These are two different modes in which you can appreciate an object and any object can be appreciated in either of them … So museums, I think rightly, have become adventurous in thinking about how to put a show together and how to make an argument with a collection.

Cole: I am still absolutely in awe of what can happen when I am face-to-face with an object … In the interest of access, we can digitize our collection; we can send them everywhere and we should, but I don’t think we should ever deny ourselves that … unique experience of interacting with an object.

Appiah: There is this thing that happens when you are in front of an object … The excitement, the aura, the magic, really is the thing that you have when you’re with the object … The sense of the connection with … the artist. …We humans are designed for three-dimensional space, socially and psychologically.

Cole: Museums as places, we hope, are even more accessible than universities, [and] ought to be providing the joy of discovering … I remember the day I walked [into the AMAM]. I grew up in the South, I grew up without the right to go to museums … [and] what happened to me because of art was quite revolutionary.