A&S junior combines love of Classics, Africana for unique research project

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
March 3, 2020

Joshua Johnson’s ’21 senior research project won’t be just on paper – he envisions kids walking through his senior project: a museum that helps them think more broadly about the term “classical civilizations.”

Johnson, a double major in classics and Africana studies, is also a Rawlings Presidential Research Scholar and a javelin thrower for the Cornell track team. He’s taken lots of Latin (though he really doesn’t like it), has been to an archaeological dig at Pompeii and dreams of being a museum curator.

Johnson’s museum would explore the classical world he loves, but not from the Eurocentric view most people have about the classics: Greece and Rome.

Johnson wants people to know more about the classical world of Egypt, Sudan, Carthage, Cyprus.

 Joshua Johnson working on an archaeological dig site“I would design a museum that re-contextualizes the way we view the ancient Classical Mediterranean world,” Johnson said. “How can we understand all of classics if we just focus on Greece and Rome. For some reason, Africa and the near East are not usually associated with the Classical world. We talk about this idea of Egypt but we never really flesh it out.”

Johnson has uncovered a host of information and research about the influences of Egypt and other African cities such as Meroe, in South Sudan, on culture and life in Greece and Rome, and vice versa.

By sifting through books on art history, archaeology, history and literature, he’s found many examples of ways that these regions copied and inspired each other during the classical period. And by visiting museums throughout the country, he is finding works from various regions that showcase the themes common during that time and exploring different ways they are displayed.

“Greeks often looked up to Egypt as an example,” he said. “And in many ways, Egyptian artists were influenced by Roman sculptors.”

He’s combining all of this work into a kit that he hopes to one day use to open his own museum, bringing to life the culture and history of all of the classical world.

By using photogrammetry, music, video, digital technology and other interactive components, Johnson said his museum would contain more than just works to view.

“I want to create a complete experience,” he said. “How can I make it more accessible and how can I connect people with these objects? Are there any contemporary artists I could include who have been influenced by these classical works?”

He said the variety of classes he’s taken in the College of Arts & Sciences have helped him to think about all aspects of a museum.

“My classics classes have taught me to analyze texts and to read and write about ancient times,” he said, “while my Africana classes have taught me to think critically about what I'm reading, the dynamics of the time period and who’s writing the work.”

Last semester, for example, he took complementary classes — Roman Law, Slavery and Gender in the classics department and Slavery and Visual Culture in Africana studies.

“I was able to sit down and work with modern slavery compared to ancient slavery. Having those two classes at the same time got my head turning.”

Johnson applied to the Rawlings scholar program after he realized the interdisciplinary nature of his research idea. The program supports up to 200 scholars each year, who collaborate with faculty mentors in designing and carrying out an individualized program of research. The program gives students research funding, faculty and peer mentorship and support for summer experiences.

“I have this artistic vision. I just have to figure out how to put the ideas I have into this project,” he said. “I like to think about this as a portfolio. I’ve done everything that a curator would do at a museum.”

Johnson hopes to spend this summer working in a museum to learn more about how he could put his ideas into practice.


  Joshua Johnson and a classical statue