Hop on the Hagley History Train

New executive director David Cole injects new energy.t

On a brisk March afternoon, David Cole is taking an hour from his busy day to guide a visitor on a walking-driving tour of his new home—Hagley Museum and Library. Cole’s long strides bring us to a spot on the banks of Brandywine Creek, directly below the house built by

Eleuthere Irenee du Pont in 1802. 

Betraying an almost boyish enthusiasm leavened with scholarly expertise, Cole describes the cacophonous process that took place in these powder yards 200 years ago—a process that combined sulfur from Italy, saltpeter from India, and charcoal from the willow trees growing along the Brandywine—to create gunpowder. “It was an assault on the senses,” Cole says. “Banging and clanging, a lot of machinery, a lot of smoke, a lot of smells—a beehive of industrial activity up and down the creek.”

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He gestures up the hill. “And the du Ponts lived right there, above the powder yards. The women complained that no matter how far from here they traveled, they could never get the smell of sulfur out of their hair and clothes.”

Cole arrived in Wilmington in September to succeed Geoff Halfpenny, who retired after six years as executive director.  Since then, the former academic has steeped himself in the legend and lore of this National Historic Landmark. At 49, he seems to combine the passion needed to inject new energy into Hagley and the practical experience necessary to run the 235-acre property.

“What attracted me is that Hagley isn’t like other museums,” Cole says. “It’s an amalgam of multiple institutions. We are a library—arguably one of the greatest intellectual resources in the world for studying the history of business and society. But then we’re also a history of an extraordinary manufacturing process that took place on this site, the du Pont story. There’s an opportunity here to immerse yourself in a slice of American history that you won’t find in many other museums—a history of industry, of manufacturing, of water power, of invention. And at the top of the property, you find the du Pont family ancestral home, Eleutherian Mills, and the first business office, the family barns, E.I. du Pont’s experimental garden. And that’s a whole other set of experiences.”

Hagley also includes the Visitor Center, with its three floors of self-guided exhibits, and Workers’ Hill, a 19th-century community that includes a foreman’s home, a Sunday School and the Belin House, now an organic café, where three generations of company beekeepers lived. 

“And it’s all rolled into one package in this extraordinary natural setting,” says Cole. “Many people come here just to walk along the banks of the creek.”

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He smiles as his gaze takes in the nearby Steam Engine House and the rushing stream. “There are institutions that are bigger than Hagley. But there aren’t many that are as diverse in terms of what it has to offer the public. And for someone like me, who has a wide variety of interests—likes to play in a lot of sandboxes intellectually—this is right up my alley.”

The last statement suggests renaissance man—an appellation he would never ascribe to himself—but in the case of Dr. David Allen Cole, it’s entirely accurate.

He grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis that was anointed the quintessential middle-class suburb by a 1966 award-winning CBS documentary, “16 in Webster Groves,” narrated by the late Charles Kuralt. There the 6-5 Cole, the oldest of three brothers, attended public schools, played high school basketball and tennis, and was active in student government. He graduated in 1983 and enrolled at Vanderbilt University, majoring in the history of art and minoring in philosophy.

The Memphis college—where, he says, he learned a bit about country music—marked the beginning of a somewhat breath-taking academic journey that included stops at some of the country’s top universities. 

After Vanderbilt, he earned a master of arts in philosophy at Loyola University of Chicago. From there it was on to Austin and a doctorate in the history of art/American studies from the University of Texas. At UT, he also taught a course in the history of art and served as academic counselor to the athletic teams. 

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Cole says the latter assignment was an invaluable experience. “I learned as much about education from working with Longhorn athletes as I ever learned in grad school or teaching in universities or working in university think tanks,” he says. “I learned a tremendous amount about how people learn in different ways.”

One of his proudest possessions, displayed in his office, is a football with the score of the 1994 Texas-Oklahoma game painted on it: “Texas 17, Oklahoma 10.” The ball was given to him by Head Coach John Mackovic in appreciation of Cole’s success in getting many football players’ academic lives in order.

He left UT in 1996 and taught briefly at two Houston universities—Houston and Rice. In 1999, his wife, Ann, who had earned a law degree at UT, received “a terrific opportunity” with a law firm in Dallas, so they moved there. With teaching jobs scarce, Cole joined a consulting business that hired former academics to work with both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. 

Up to that point, he had been immersed in academia, so he had no business background. But, he says, “I learned on the fly,” working with big and small companies, “figuring out what was ailing these organizations.”

Of those five years he says, “It was a real education for me, and I learned things I use every day in my current job.”

But consulting required extensive travel, and the newly minted father soon tired of being on the road. That led to another change and a final stop in academia.

Cole had long been fascinated by pedagogy—the science and art of education, specifically instructional theory—or, as he says, “how people learn.” He read about a think tank—Project Zero—at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose mission is to study “learning across disciplines and cultures . . . including schools, businesses, digital environments” and, significantly, “museums.”

Soon the Coles were off to Cambridge, where David enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While earning his second master’s degree, he also became a research fellow in Project Zero. 

“That was a life-changing intellectual and professional experience for me,” he says. “It sharpened my focus on how people learn and how we can optimize the settings in which they learn.” 

From there he moved over to the Harvard University Art Museums and became director of strategic initiatives, spearheading community partnerships, launching exhibition projects, and playing a key role in the capital campaign to renovate and expand the Fogg Museum.

He made a strong impression on the director of the museums, Thomas Lentz. “David is a thinker and a problem-solver, and those two things don’t always go hand-in-hand,” says Lentz. “There are some people who want to endlessly theorize or [create] another iteration, but at some point you actually have to start doing things. He has that sort of nice balance of thoughtfulness and action.”

After three years, Cole left Harvard but stayed in Cambridge to become vice president for advancement, communications, and public education at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, a nonprofit research and teaching institution affiliated with MIT. His task was to promote Whitehead to the outside world. 

“The most fun part of that job was creating education programs that serve the public, primarily children,” says Cole.

It was at this point, about six months into the search for Halfpenny’s successor, that the Hagley board offered Cole the executive director’s job.  

“I was happy in Cambridge,” he says. “It had not been on my mind to pursue something else.” But Hagley’s lure was irresistible. 

One of his co-workers at Whitehead, Sonja Plesset, who is vice president of institutional advancement, calls Cole “a great listener” and “an inspiring leader.”

“He’s somebody you want to do the best possible job for,” she says. “It’s rare to find someone who is not only a real intellectual, but is also a keen listener who continually seeks new ways to improve the way institutions interact with the outside world. He’s going to be great at Hagley. I can’t imagine a better match for his passion, interest and his skills.”

In introducing the new director, Board President Henry B. du Pont IV stated that Hagley had “a new strategic direction” for the remainder of the decade. Then, in a somewhat colorful comment for a Hagley board chair, he added, “Our vision is to be a place where innovation inspires and imaginations run wild.” 

Which is right in Cole’s wheelhouse. “In my consulting and teaching work,” he says, “innovation was so central to everything.”

He explains that innovation differs from invention in that innovators take an invention—the computer or the Internet, for instance—and tailor it to a market. “Steve Jobs never invented anything, but he was the master innovator of the late 20th, early 21st centuries. The du Ponts were master innovators 200 years ago. They didn’t invent gunpowder, but they sure made it better than anybody else and were better at marketing it, transporting it and storing it and being safe about it than anyone else. 

“So we want innovation to be central to the experience of our visitors. We want Hagley to be both a place that explains the history of innovation in all its facets, and as a natural complement to that, to teach learners of all ages how they can be innovators in their own right.”

One of Cole’s first projects aimed at achieving that goal will debut this summer when a turbine that was found in the creek three years ago will be restored to working order. He calls the turbine “a taste of things to come.”

“We want to go up the creek from there, kind of mill by mill, and find places to install interesting things that move, so that people will not just read about how gunpowder was made here but actually get a feel for what it looked like, what it felt like, so that you are not just imagining the kinds of machines and activity that took place 200 years ago, but you can actually see things turn and move up and down and back and forth, and see how water power was channeled into working the machines—have the whole place literally physically come alive.

“I’d like to get to the point someday where no matter where you are on the property, there’s something for you to learn by doing, by participating—even if it’s the simplest of activities.”

Meanwhile, of course, the museum will continue with its tried and true events—the fireworks show, the car show, author talks, summer camps, Bike and Hike evenings, and much more. 

Cole knows that to attract more people, Hagley has to provide an alternative to the iPad and video games.

“We have to offer people things they can’t get anywhere else, and that includes other museums. We don’t want to be a me-too museum. I don’t want people to say ‘Hagley is a museum for whatever, and it looks just like these other five museums.’ We need to have an offering that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.”

As he considers ways to make Hagley even more appealing to families, Cole often runs ideas by his son and daughter—Marshall, 12, and Eliza, 7. The first children to live in the director’s house, which is on the museum grounds, “They soak up the place 24/7,” according to their father, and they make for a handy—and candid—“focus group.” 

“They don’t pull any punches,” Cole says.

The new director certainly has much to work with, because the Hagley story is endlessly fascinating, mixing the struggles of a fledgling manufacturing enterprise with the human drama of a family—12 adults and six children—who sailed from France to America, a voyage that took 93 days, a voyage so hideous and unexpectedly long that by the end they were eating rats. They arrived with eight business plans to pursue in their new homeland. Seven of those plans failed. With the eighth, they started a company that thrives today, and that still bears the family name. 

It is a uniquely American story that is both inspiring and educational. And David Cole seems ideally suited to tell it—and sell it.

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