Art historian Cooke teaches students to learn by looking
In his junior year at Yale, Edward Cooke visited art historian Charles F. Montgomery during office hours to ask about taking a graduate-undergraduate seminar the professor was teaching the next semester.
“His first words to me were, ‘You want to teach, don’t you?’” Cooke said.
Cooke, B.A. ’77, is uncertain what prompted Montgomery to make the observation, and said he is not even sure that it was true at the time. Still, Montgomery was onto something. Today, Cooke is the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts at Yale, and his teaching has earned international recognition. He recently received the 2018 Distinguished Teaching of Art History Award from the College Arts Association, a global organization that promotes engagement with the visual arts.
Cooke is the fourth Yale faculty member in the Department of the History of Art to win the prize, which has been awarded annually since 1977. The previous Yale winners were Robert Herbert in 1982, Anne Coffin Hanson — the first woman to join Yale as a full-tenured professor — in 1990, and Jules D. Prown in 1996.
“It’s an incredible honor,” Cooke said. “But it’s not my honor; it is an honor for the department, our graduate students, and the university. It shows Yale’s commitment to teaching. That’s what’s most important about it, and it just happens to be channeled through me.”
It was in Yale’s classrooms and lecture halls where Cooke first learned to appreciate how the study of art objects can shed light on societies, cultures, and the past.
“I took Vincent Scully’s modern architecture course and realized that I have a visual memory,” he said. “That led me to Charles Montgomery, who was offering a course on American decorative arts until 1830. The light bulb went off at that point, and I realized that objects are an incredible source for historical study.”
Montgomery’s class provided Cooke an opportunity to personally engage with objects from Yale’s museum collections.
“The firsthand experience was a fantastic aspect of the class,” he said. “It wasn’t just viewing slides. There were sections in which you were handling objects.”
He recalls he was impressed by the familiarity with which Montgomery, who had been an antiques dealer and museum professional, handled the objects.
“It was respectful but comfortable at the same time,” he said. “That’s an incredible pedagogy — not being intimidated by objects, not being tense in dealing with them, and teaching others to comfortably engage with them. The collections here, combined with exposure to a figure like Charles Montgomery, led me down a certain path.”
After graduating, Cooke, who goes by “Ned,” earned his Ph.D. in history from Boston University and later worked as a curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, before returning to Yale in 1992. This semester, he is teaching “Introduction to the History of Art: Global Decorative Arts,” a survey course that covers the global history of decorative arts from antiquity to the present. He is also teaching “Lacquer in a World Context,” a graduate-level seminar.
‘A great storyteller’
To win the teaching prize, Cooke had to be nominated by a colleague or a former or current student. The nomination had to be supported by testimonials from other colleagues and students.
Ruthie Dibble, a seventh-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of the History of Art, submitted a letter of support.
“At Yale, Ned has inspired generations of undergraduate and graduate students to critically engage with the history of the material world,” she wrote. “Through his undergraduate courses … Ned has given young scholars a heightened awareness of, and profound appreciation for, the relationship between people and objects that shape our lived experience.”
Undergraduate Sarah Gomez said she had never thought deeply about art history before taking his global survey course.
“It made me want to be an art-history major,” said Gomez, a senior who has taken two of Cooke’s courses.
Gomez said Cooke possesses an impressive ability to distill his vast body of knowledge into a clear and compelling narrative that moves through time and geography to draw connections between craft-making traditions and demonstrate the universality of certain themes in art. A lecture might begin with a discussion of woodturning in Morocco; move to examples of the technique from colonial New England; then cover the use of lacquer as a finishing technique on wooden objects in East Asia; and jump to Mexico to discuss the use of lacquers made of chia seeds and insect excretions.
“He’s a great storyteller,” Gomez said, who is double majoring in history and art history.
Cooke excels at showing connections among diverse cultures and objects while also underscoring that each place and time has its own distinct history, she said. “He never erases the differences between things but the students love seeing all the connections he draws throughout history and across the world.”
The survey course is divided into units that each focus on a specific medium, such as ceramics, wood, metals, or textiles. Once the students acquire a base of knowledge about materials and craft making, Cooke takes aims at larger themes, such as social rituals or material histories, to encourage the students to think about art objects as artifacts that absorb influences from different cultures and time periods, Gomez said.
Cooke said his goal with undergraduates is to foster a lifelong curiosity about objects.
“With that curiosity, you won’t impose your values on an object, but come to understand it on its own terms,” he said. “That leads to a much greater tolerance of others. You don’t automatically assume that your chair or bowl is better, that we’re at the pinnacle of civilization and culture, but rather, you understand that there are all sorts of different ways to make things and all sorts of materials to use in making them. It promotes engagement with the larger world and understanding other cultures on their own terms.”
Learning by looking
Like Montgomery, Cooke regularly incorporates Yale’s collections into his teaching. He notes that a luxury of teaching at Yale is the presence of multiple object-study classrooms in the university’s museums, which allows faculty to expose students to the depth and richness of Yale’s collections.
“I really enjoy sharing the uniqueness of this environment and the object-driven inquiry it enables,” he said. “It’s about having a conversation with the object. How do you draw something out of it? How does it speak to you? It drives ideas and you start being able to put an object in a temporal, geographic, sequential context.”
Gomez said the ability to handle a museum object — to feel its texture and heft — was a revelatory experience.
“I had lived my whole life operating under the assumption that when you go to museums you have to monitor your behavior and you can’t touch things,” she said. “To walk into a classroom and be invited to handle art objects completely changed the museum experience for me.”
She recalled the first art object she handled — an African beer pot.
“Handling an object helps you to appreciate and understand the effort that went into making it,” she said. “You gain insight into what it means to work metal or produce a ceramic pot.”
Cooke holds a weekly meeting with his graduate teaching assistants to plan for the object study session, in which he familiarizes them with the objects and, if they do not already know, describes in detail how each piece was made, Dibble said.
“Ned teaches us to engage undergraduates by asking questions that draw them into each object. The idea is to help students see the labor, experience, and intelligence that all forms of making — not just painting and sculpture — require. Sometimes it’s a rare or ancient object and sometimes it’s something far more common, for example a spoon or a box. It changes the way students see and value both objects in museums and those they encounter everyday,” she said.
Cooke strives to make his students aware of the skill and labor that involved in producing objects. As part of a first-year seminar he teaches on furniture and American life, he has held a session with a craftsman who specializes in 17th-century joinery. Students have the chance to split and plane wood, cut and pin a mortise and tenon joint, and lay out a carving.
“You’re not going to have them build a chair, but giving them exposure to certain steps trains their eyes and gets them thinking about what went into building an object,” he said. “Then, for example, they can deconstruct a piece of furniture as they look at it.”
Later this year, he will open a low-tech laboratory at Yale’s West Campus to enable students to work with wood, metal, clay, and other materials within the context of classes or workshops.
“It will be a space in which we can invite master craftspeople to conduct demonstrations and get the students involved in working with materials,” he said.
The experiences handling objects and learning about how they are made provides Cooke’s students the tools necessary to comfortably ask questions of art objects, said Gomez.
“He teaches you how to read an object as a text and how to learn by looking,” Gomez said. “Students can bring those skills into whatever field they enter. They serve you beyond the museum space and into everyday life. You find yourself asking, ‘What can I learn just by looking?’”
‘A selfless adviser’
Cooke seeks to help his graduate students hone their research interests and develop professionally.
“I enjoy helping them to dig a little deeper into a topic and helping them to discover their own voices,” he said. “That’s very gratifying.”
Cooke is renowned for the one-on-one guidance he provides both graduate and undergraduate students, according to Dibble. He is equally gifted at addressing scholarly and offering pragmatic concerns, moving in one meeting from suggesting books and articles relevant to their research to advice on how to meet deadlines and position themselves in the field, she said.
“Ned has a distinct intellectual perspective and wide-ranging interests that he is always pursuing, and yet he’s able to listen to students and understand their needs and interests in the most empathetic way,” Dibble said. “He’s a selfless adviser who has all the tools and knowledge to push a project forward but always allows students to work on their own terms, which is so critical to students’ success, particularly in graduate school.”
Cooke is advising Gomez on her senior thesis, which examines the cultural significance of Zippo and Bic lighters in the Vietnam War era. He makes time for students, lends them books, suggests events that might be relevant to their work, and raises issues and ideas they might not have considered, she said.
“When I mentioned lighters in the ’60s, he said that he was just thinking about what kinds of lighters people used to burn their draft cards in protest,” said Gomez, who works as a student guide the Yale University Art Gallery. “I hadn’t thought of that, and it opened up another fertile field for my research.”
Cooke says working with students has broadened his own research interests.
“One of the great of experiences has been being on dissertation committees of people doing work on China in the 18th century, on Mongolia in the 15th century, or on Japan in the 16th century,” he said. “Engaging with that variety keeps the work constantly fresh.”
While trained as an Americanist, he teaches the global survey course and writes frequently about Britain, India, and China. He is finishing a book on the self-invention of Boston over the period of 1680 to 1720, examining the hybridized world in which the port city’s merchants and makers imported materials from throughout the British Empire while also producing materials locally. Once that project is completed, he will write a book for the Princeton University Press based on his global survey course.
“My world continues to grow larger and larger,” he said.