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Two Prominent Museum Directors Encourage 'New Ways Of Thinking'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work. Today we want to take a look at two groundbreaking museums that are celebrating important milestones this year. And we will speak with the people who lead them. The National Museum of African Art marks its 50th anniversary this year, now part of the Smithsonian Institution, it contains more than 10,000 African art objects, the largest publicly held collection of both traditional and contemporary African art in the United States. Johnnetta B. Cole is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and she is with us now, once again in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome back to the program. Thank you for coming.

JOHNNETTA B. COLE: It's good to be here.

MARTIN: Another Smithsonian Institution celebrating a milestone anniversary this year is the National Museum of the American Indian. 25 years ago this November, Congress passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act, establishing it as part of the Smithsonian. Since then, it has dedicated itself to sharing the culture, languages, history, and arts of Native American people. Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, and he's also here with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome to you as well. Happy Anniversary to you both.

COLE: Thank you.

KEVIN GOVER: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Now, I thought it would be fun to get the two of you together, for a number of reasons. These are significant anniversaries, but also, because neither of you is a lifelong museum person. Each of you had kind of a different route to this position.

So Kevin Gover, I'll start with you. You are a member of the Pawnee tribe of Oklahoma. Your parents were Indian activists. You had a long career in law before you came to Washington the first time as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. So I was wondering, what led you to this job?

GOVER: I never imagined that I would end up running a museum, let alone a Smithsonian museum. But when the opportunity arose, it was too attractive not to at least consider, and then finally decide that, yes, this is something I would really like to do. What attracted me to it is the simply the opportunity to change people's understandings of native history and culture because there are so many misunderstandings. The Smithsonian is a such huge platform that it was too good an offer to refuse.

MARTIN: Doctor Cole, what about you? Many people know you've had a very distinguished career as an educator, but many people know you as the leader of not one, but two different historically black institutions; very well known. What led you to want to do this position at a time when - you know - a lot of people would have been very understanding if all you wanted to do was sit on your porch and drink iced tea?

COLE: Well I could rephrase your question to say why in the world would I get a third F minus in retirement? And the answer is very similar to the one that my brother Kevin has given - how could I not? Once it was explained as to what I was to do, how could I not take advantage of this opportunity? In many ways, to do in a museum setting what I've always done and loved. And that is to engage in that amazing human enterprise called teaching and learning. And just as Kevin and our colleagues at that museum want to help folk to rethink how they think about Native American people, we simply want to help folk rethink how they think about Africa.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that was actually leading to another question I had, which is that - Kevin Gover I'll start with you on this one - which is, the wrap on museums is that they're boring. And I just want - and that they're for people who are used to absorbing information in a certain way, which is like, a two-dimensional way. There's stuff that you look at, and then you read about it, and then that's what you do. And so what are you doing about that?

GOVER: Well, nobody wants to read a lecture on the wall. And we laugh at our museum because we're always handing out these stern lectures to people about, you know, you really shouldn't believe certain things that you've been taught, and we don't want to do that so much. We want them to have fun, and learn; and then ask themselves, I wonder why I didn't know that before, and I wonder what else I don't know.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit more about that? Have you engaged in some self-correction over the course - you haven't been with the museum the entire time it's been there, over the 25 years? You're far too young - but, have you - has the - over the life of the museum, engaged in some self-correction from this kind of a finger pointing, guilt inducing, you're wrong, admit it, and I'll applaud - kind of point of view? Have you felt that to be necessary to do?

GOVER: The museum was never really accusatory, but we do. We spend a lot of time - I mean it is a museum - so we muse great deal.

MARTIN: (Laughing).

GOVER: And in our case, we mused about so what do people take away from our museum? Is that we want them to take away? And if not, what do we do to change it? And what are the stories that we need to tell in order to get them to hear the key messages that we're trying to deliver?

MARTIN: What about you, Dr. Cole? How do you - you've spent so much of your life working with younger people, connecting to young people, educating them. Is there something that's changed for you over the course of time, and how you want to think about having those conversations and bringing people?

COLE: Well, I think for many young people, their world is actually more complex, and I am almost going to say more interesting than the world that I grew up in. You know, I grew up in the southern part of the United States of America in those horrific days of legalized racial discrimination. And so during those days, so much of one's life was against those obscene narratives. At least we now live in a country where those narratives are no longer to be articulated and act upon in public. And so for young folk who are coming into a museum of African art, I think it is with a different set of experiences, and we want to relate to those experiences. But, because we know the importance of history, and her story, we also want it to be a museum where they understand about apartheid, where they understand about the enslavement of African peoples. And so, it's a bit of a dance to speak to their new way of thinking, and dreaming, and yet to have them - our youngins, as I affectionately call these folk - to have our youngins always place themselves in some kind of a historical context. You know, the way we sometimes say it with an African proverb is - looking back in order to go forward. Or, where I grew up, we say - look, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you have been.

MARTIN: There are some who might wonder, why is the National Museum of African Art on the National Mall, which a lot of people associate with, kind of, telling the American story.

COLE: Because quite simply, Africa belongs everywhere. After all, it is the only place on Earth where each and every one of us can say accurately we have come from there. We are all, in that sense, Africa's people. But secondly, I would say that while the Smithsonian is so deeply associated with American people, with America's complex stories, our stories are never fully understood until we put them in much larger context, including the context of the world.

MARTIN: Kevin Gover, what about you? What story do you want people to take away from your institution?

GOVER: Well, that the Americas at the time of contact and for millennia before that, were thriving. They were self-sufficient. Civilizations rose and fell, just as they had in the rest of the world. And that when contact occurred, it changed the world, because of the accomplishments that native people had achieved while they were alone in the Americas. It's much like Johnnetta said, you can't understand America without understanding the world. By the same token, you can't understand the world without understanding America, and Native Americans, in particular, and what happened because of the native civilizations, that pre-existed contact.

MARTIN: You use the word contact. I think a lot of people are used to hearing the word discovered. Why do you think it's important to use that word?

GOVER: Well, because obviously Columbus didn't discover anything. The people were already here. And it's more accurate to say that this moment, this moment of contact between the Americas and the rest of the world, really was the most important moment in known human history in defining the world that we live in today. That was the great moment of globalization, not the passage of NAFTA or any of that. It was when these two completely independent groups of people realized each other, and began to take advantage of the accomplishments that each brought to the table.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having a Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we hear from people who make a difference through their work, or have made a difference, are making a difference.

We're speaking with Kevin Gover. He's director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. And, Johnnetta B. Cole, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Both are observing significant anniversaries this year. So we thought it would be fun to get the two of them together.

Kevin Gover, do people ever have trouble, guests at the museum, ever have trouble with that shift in consciousness from the idea of this group of people discovering this land, or this other group of people, to these two different groups encountering each other? Are they ever annoyed?

GOVER: Well, quite often our staff receives complaints from some visitors. One of the things you hear a lot is, we're being politically correct, that we're really, sort of, changing the narrative. To which, we plead guilty. We are attempting to change the common narrative because it's wrong. And we believe using words like contact or encounter are much more accurate than saying Columbus discovered America.

MARTIN: Doctor Cole, is there any narrative you feel you're trying to correct in some way? Or any misunderstanding you're trying to correct, with your work?

COLE: The real American story does have far more going for it, and about it, than these stereotypical notions. We can't totally change all of those narratives, but we certainly can engage our visitors and conversations. We can simply, through the placement of art objects, through our educational programs, through our outreach, we can invite, again - conversations. We can pose questions. We can do, as Kevin has just said, use a different word with the ultimate goal of helping each of us to understand, clearly, the differences among us but no less to understand the fundamental human similarities that make up the human race.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, I noted that the museum had an exhibition on the cosmos, or scientific discovery as lived by...

COLE: By African people.

MARTIN: ...by African people.

COLE: It was a tremendous exhibition. Done by our deputy director and chief curator Christine Mullen Kreamer, an exhibition on cultural astronomy of Africa. Who in the world associates Africa with scientific discovery? Who associates Native American peoples with an incredible history and pre-history of involvement with scientific thought?

And so for those of us who are directors, I hope no less than for the visitors who come, it's an incredibly exciting place to be, called a museum.

And obviously these days, we're facing challenges. Think about these young folk who walked into the museums. They don't look like typical museum goers. First of all, they barely walk in, or rarely, I should say, empty-handed. They've got these extensions to their hands, and they are engaged in a rapid amount of information giving and receiving. How do we, in our museums, not interrupt that, but use that kind of engagement in a way - again - to continue to engage in conversations, to pose the kind of questions that ask our visitors to rethink how they have been thinking?

MARTIN: Well, before we let each of you go, would you just give us a word of wisdom? I mean - it can be about what ever - either wisdom that you've gained or gleaned from doing this work, or that wisdom you would hope that museum goers would take into the future, or what you hope for for each of your institutions.

GOVER: I think that - I don't know if it's wisdom - but one thing that I've learned is that the more I learn, the less I know. And as I've really dug into my own study of native history, I find that I cannot understand that unless I understand the history of other peoples. And as that becomes more clear, the story becomes more complex and tangled, and messy, and it becomes more wonderful. And that's what we need to try to achieve at the Smithsonian, is to tell these wonderful stories in all of their complexity, and messiness, and help people to become comfortable with that. And, as Dr. Cole was saying, it's all about being human. And all of these different peoples were so very human, for good and ill. And it's okay, and we should learn about them so that we can avoid those kinds of mistakes in the future, and repeat the great successes of the past.

MARTIN: Doctor Cole, a final thought from you.

COLE: Well, when I think about the next 50 years at our museum, again, I want to lift up Warren Robbins' notion that African art can help us to engage in cross-cultural communication. But I'm also thinking, that in the next 50 years at our museum, how exciting it's going to be to be in partnership with the other museums at the Smithsonian; with museums around the world. I value collaboration. My colleagues and I do. And if in the next 50 years, our museum can reach out and even more effectively relate to the Museum of the American Indian, to what is now called the Latino Center, the Asian and Pacific Islander Center? If these centers can then find ways to more effectively collaborate with the American History Museum, the American Art Museum - and so, over the next 50 years or more, I really believe that partnerships and collaborations will help us to do our work better.

One more proverb - an African proverb that says -if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

MARTIN: Johnnetta B. Cole is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

They were both here together in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GOVER: Thank you, Michel.

COLE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.