Informational Interview – History across the pond

It’s been nearly a month, but I finally heard back from one of the public historians I reached out to for the informational interview. I emailed with Matt Seaver, an assistant keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division of the National Museum of Ireland.

Q: When you start putting together a body of research to tell stories, how do you go about finding the stories you want to tell?

A: Our stories in Archaeology come from talking about the national themes in our Islands past. These are broadly chronological and are driven by the surviving objects with the constraints that our historic building allows – for example the Mesolithic (our earliest time period of occupation from around 8000 BC) occupies a small area with stone lithic tools, stone axes and a preserved fish trap compared to our evidence for the Bronze Age which occupies a large area of the centre court of the museum and displays the spectacular Bronze Age gold and ceramic collections. More recently studies around the discovery of well preserved bog bodies of Bronze and Iron Age date led to an exhibition around the idea of Iron Age and Early Medieval Kingship and sacrifice. Equally our Viking Ireland gallery uses the vast collections from the Dublin excavations of the 1980’s to discuss the impact of the Vikings of our history and their transformative effect on the church and society. The Treasury contains the greatest treasures of Early medieval Ireland and charts the development of art styles and society during this time. The stories to tell are our national story – the past of the people of the island – the themes may reflect the research interests of individual curators but are vetted by a committee at a high level and must be relevant to our national story. These could hinge on concepts like the anniversary of a major event for example the Battle of Clontarf where the Irish High King Brian Boru defeated the Viking King of Dublin in 1014 or the anniversary of 1916 – the uprising which started our war of independence.  Updates to this story may come from new avenues like molecular biology and ancient DNA. The online space also allows us to develop more elaborate and larger narratives than the building will allow and that is something which we will be developing more in the coming years, particularly given the current situation with Covid-19 restrictions.

Q: After you have collected this body of research, how do you go about putting it into a cohesive narrative? What are some concerns that you have related to both of these processes?

A: Chronology is usually the hook around adding the objects around themes. We spend a lot of time obtaining C14 dates where possible or obtaining comparative dates. We have to be careful around sensitive issues; such as the display of human remains, how to communicate in ways which accommodate a pluralistic society. Narratives have to work around the audiences and the concepts must be readily explainable to an educated 14 year old in terms of literacy – our content needs to be accessible to all audiences. All of the subjects also need to be bilingual (Irish and English) so this restricts panel space, generally we can only have 200 words per panel. The art is trying to tell your story in a distilled way using as many images as possible in conjunction with the objects. The mounting and lighting of the objects is so important in order to highlight decoration, moods etc. We complement the core exhibitions with video and web content which allows the viewer/listener to dive deeper into researching a given topic.

Q: Why is it important to tell stories about the past?

A: Our multi stranded identity on this island comes directly from an understanding of the past. Archaeology shows that we are all migrants to this island and that there have been many different strands to our identity in the past. In Ireland elements our of our past are contested and it is important that the general public understand how these narratives came about. The relationship of our Island in a globalised world can be seen through our contacts outside the island in the past and allows us to accommodate change.

A New Perspective ?

  Beyond the Wok—A new face for Chinese food?

       Landscapes are places where people visit daily, some of them we never pay much attention to since it became familiar to us. But even a slight change in the shape of the landscape can alter our mood or perceptions for the day, so how do landscapes make you feel?

       Beyond the Wok Chinese restaurant is a place located a few blocks from downtown Auburn adjacent to the CVS on south college street. Despite having visited an abundance of eastern style Chinese restaurants in the area, I still get the sensation that this restaurant intrigues me in some way. For starters, the ceiling and the walls are painted orange to represent Auburn, there are slogans on the wall which read: “Go hit’em big blue!” and “Cheers for Auburn!”; the floor is moped clean with tables neatly organized into rows, hand sanitizers can be seen standing on top of every counter in the shop. It all indicates the cleanliness and the standard to which the food was prepared. In some similar restaurants instead of clean woks and backstage prep stations you can easily find food packages being place near raw food and some chefs picking up food from the ground and pours them into the wok again.

       From the most direct way of approach, music chimes can be heard from every direction casting off the walls, light shadows hang to the walls as if they were cute animals. Utensils are neatly packed for each customer and the aroma of the fresh ingredients firing up in the wok was something which reminded me of home and how my mother used to cook. Since COVID-19 is still around there isn’t much of a customer base for dining in, most people would get takeout as the food tastes almost the same as on a plate. I caught some distant chatter between two people arguing what is the best way to use chopsticks, one said to hold it with one hand and slice through the food, the other defended that one stick in each hand can serve as a fork and a knife. The atmosphere seemed light.

       Since we are both ethnically Chinese, I spoke in mandarin about the restaurant with the owner, he told me the only thing he is trying to improve is the visibility of the workstations to the customers. He plans to install windowpanes in front of those woks so the customers can see how their food is prepared. He further stated that he had visions for the restaurant that some day in the future it will become the most amazing joint near downtown Auburn. Their chef’s dedication to the authenticity of the dishes will for sure impress anyone looking for an home style cooking and dining experience. In the past when I relate to the word “Chinese Restaurant” I always think of people from Hong Kong or Fuzhou trying their best to speak English to their customers and the prep stations are always a mess. However, this restaurant hired some Auburn locals as servers so there would not be a translation issue. This small joint almost unnoticeable to the eye completely changed my perception, I sincerely hope it will alter the traditional views of the westerners to Chinese food as cheap and horrible to swallow to the new standard of Chinese cooking and hospitality.

The Wonders of a Landscape

This past week, I was able to experience one of my favorite landscapes in Alabama. That landscape is this incredibly old tree in my family’s home: Lamar County, Alabama. This tree has been the source of many good memories over the years: nature excursions, Sunday drives, peaceful Bible study, and many more. However, I have never sat and observed it for itself. As I sat in a chair under the shade of its massive branches, I began observing many things that I under-appreciated: Leaves, branches, vines, all blocking the beautiful sunshine of a fall day. Birds were in the air singing the song of creation, of new life. I found myself surrounded by various creatures, some seen, some unseen. No matter what position I was in, or where I was sitting, I found myself completely at peace. The serenity of God’s creation is second to none. I was only accessible by one small dirt road that winds through foliage for multiple miles before spitting you out at this tree. Green everywhere, thanks to cold fall being slightly delayed and many evergreens all around. I was at least ten miles from any people – maybe that’s why it’s so serene…. The landscape was teeming with life, and I a part of it. When standing at a different angle, the sun shines differently. I still see everything I already saw, but also, I see further down the road. There is still nothing but vegetation, dirt and animals as far as the eye can see. Everything is quiet. There is the occasional bird chirping or squirrel moving, but other than that, just the rustling of the leaves. I have never been in a more peaceful setting; it is completely serene, and I can think so well. I smell nature. I smell grass and clean, crisp air. The dirt has a slight smell to it, but it’s hard to describe. I love the way nature smells, like life. The landscape is rough, not comfortable, but raw. The weeds are not soft, but rugged, it’s not comfortable, yet somehow very peaceful. I sat and pondered the history of this tree, and all that it has seen over undoubtedly hundreds of years. Because my grandparents have lived here for 50 years, and because a small part of it still stands, I know that there used to be an old homestead to the right of this tree, but it has been abandoned since the 1970’s. There isn’t much left of that old place, just a small structure, nature has almost completely taken over. The place is now just a part of the county land. It belongs to the county, and they have just let the land exist as it is. People can come use the land as they see fit – as long as they are good stewards. The history of this place can’t be observed, as I said, it’s up to people to share its history, and memories. My grandparents are able to share the tree’s history, well at least around 50 years of its history, but not much more. I think the history of this place is important, but honestly the current situation is just as important. It’s a serene place where people can be alone with nature and enjoy God’s creation. These unseen things (the bugs, various creatures, history) don’t have as much of a large impact because this landscape is all about being in the moment, taking in what you are witnessing. However, it is still fun to sit and wonder just what all has happened at its roots.


I interviewed a graduate student from the aviation program in Auburn who is currently attending a master’s program for community planning. He is an example of people who faced a life-changing event in 2020, and a little part of history.

I asked about his daily life in the current situation, and what is the difference between his pre-pandemic life. He told me that this is the first time in his life that he is trying to pick up pens to draw something. He stared his pilot training since he was in high school, he usually flies five days a week before the pandemic, and now he says he is a “weekend warrior.” He complained to me how difficult for him to actually draw something in the studio and he is on a topic that he “knows nothing about it!”

We also talked about how technology played a role in this pandemic life, he told me now he is dependent more on it than ever before, all the classes, job interviews, and most importantly, for entertainment. He said usually his entertainment was fly his plane, which was how he spent most of his time before the pandemic. Now he sits at his apartment, got nothing to do for fun, and the internet is the only thing that prevents him “going crazy!”

Before the pandemic, his life plan to work for some airline company that he had internship with. And when the Covid-19 hit right before his graduation, he knew that in the least five years there will be no major airlines would hiring any new pilot, and he told me “if I can’t work, why don’t I get another degree?” So after a rush research, he applied to any Master program that has the lowest requirements, which in Auburn, it was the community planning. After a little waiting period, now he says, “it’s not a bad one.”

He told me that he used to have a great plan. He was a good pilot with enough experience to start as an entry-level commercial pilot in some small airlines. And now he is studying a degree that he never thought about it before.

COVID did change many things, some people got lucky, but it is a historical event that affected everyone’s life. For him, it may turn his life in a whole different direction; for me, I did witness how a big event changed a small life. We always talking about all these historical influences, all the big History, and oftentimes we would forget the small history. The Big “H” history is exciting, they are famous, eye-catching, those big news we having today would still be the big History in the future. But the small “h” history is also the past, it could be my friend’s story, a post on social media, they are not notable, and probably not very important to the world, but they are history. We are the small “h” history. Most of us would never be remembered by the rest of the world, and most small history probably would be buried after the time. But I think this could be the fun of studying public history, which is to dig out the small history.

Ask a Public Historian: Ted Rosengarten

Dr. Theodore Rosengarten is a writer, Professor of History at the College of Charleston,  he specialized in race relations, Holocaust studies, and environmental history and consulted with museums, municipalities, public schools, colleges, and universities on projects relating to African-American history, environmental studies, and the Holocaust, since the 1970s.  He is also the author of my all-time favorite book All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. I met Dr. Rosengarten at the event of “The Life and Legacy of Ned Cobb” in 2019, and I felt it would be very interesting to interview him. After a long time of exchange emails, I finally had a face time interview with him, which was a wonderful experience.

Q: What is your first interest in history and what made you choose to be a historian?

A: I was born and spent my first ten years, in Brooklyn, NY, the years immediately after WWII and if ever a child could feel that history was happening all around him, this was the time and place.  The two big dramas I remember from childhood were 1-a flood of refugees arriving in the city, in the very apartment building where we lived, in the aftermath of the murder of the Jews in Europe.  Whatever had happened had not ended emotionally for the poor survivors.  The word Holocaust did not exist and it was difficult to conceptualize the mass murder of a whole people to whom I was somehow related    2-the breaking down of racial segregation in baseball which, at the time was the only major sport, that was happening three streets from where we lived, in Ebbets Field, where the Brooklyn Dodgers played (now the LA Dodgers) and where Jackie Robinson was single-handedly integrating baseball and America.  The story of the Jews and story of the Negroes—the respectable term for African Americans at the time—seemed to me, as a child, to be threads of a single story that now, seventy years later, I am still trying to unravel.

And another event was the 1963 black church bombing on 60th street gave me a reason to study African-American history.

Q: I KNOW WHEN YOU FINISHED YOUR Ph.D. AT Harvard university, public history was a very new field. Do you think of yourself as a public historian?

A: Public history is a very old field that has only recently gone by that name.  Cultures and societies that build memorials, that engage in cave and rock art, that preserve legacies in storytelling and song are practicing public history.  To the extent that I am a public historian I am first an educator, I try to bring the power of literacy and research into the open, in writing that anyone can read, in exhibitions of historical artifacts that speak to the imagination, in classrooms, museums, and at historic sites.  I think of myself as a writer, a historian, and an activist, particularly when it comes to social justice.

I think myself as a educator first, then is a historian.

Q: You’ve spent your career in and out of the university. How have you balanced academia and more public work?

A: I never tried to climb the academic ladder or sought a job with tenure.  As a lifelong adjunct instructor I’ve put my time on campus 100% into teaching, formally and informally.  And my time off-campus into writing and editing, political activism, public school reform, and coaching youth sports.  Dragging my two sons with me at every step along the way.

Q: I loved your book All God’s Dangers, but what is your personal favorite history book?

A: All God’s Dangers is the work I live with every day, fifty-one years after meeting Ned Cobb. Which history books other than my own are my favorites?  Let me name a few.  Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina, from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1739), by Peter Wood. Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth-Century, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.  Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America, by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall.  Throw in a handful of great European novels and you could lock me up in a room for a month with those books and bring me my meals.    

Q: I noticed you have done five city projects from 1998 to 2003, can you talk about some of your experiences in those projects, and what is your role in those projects?

A: I worked on a Marion Square project in Charleston, SC, which was one of my earliest city projects. Then there was the Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, New York, it was a beautiful urban park near the Brooklyn Bridge and East River. I was the historian on the site which gave consultation to the architect and the design firm. Most of my job was to proved research information and gave advice. I currently working on a project in The Ulma Family Museum of Poles Saving Jews in World War II in Markowa, Poland.

Q: In your long career, what is the biggest challenge or the most faced challenge?  

A: The biggest challenge I have faced as a historian of race in America and the Holocaust in Europe is using what I know to help move the world in a certain direction.  Practically speaking, after having some success in bringing improvements to elementary and middle school education in our majority-black rural district, I was stymied, stopped cold, trying to introduce changes to the local high school that would have allowed me to send my children there.  

Q: You worked on the Governor’s school in College of Charleston for eight tears, what do you think about this summer program for the high school students, and what did you learn from teaching them?

A: The Governor’s School at the College of Charleston brought the state’s top rising high school seniors to campus for six weeks—later reduced to four—of college-level work where it was okay to be smart, creative, and contrary.   Students and teachers loved the experience.   We all learned so much.   I learned that the great Russian writer Tolstoy was not kidding when he wrote an essay in his later years called, “Should We Teach the Children to Write or Should They teach Us?”  Ending this amazing investment in human capital was a crime against the people of South Carolina.

 Q: What is your opinion of the BLM and other activist calls to bring down monuments?

A: I support without reservation non-violent civil disobedience against police brutality and all racially motivated violence against black people.  That, to me, is the essence of BLM.  On the question of what to do about monuments that glorify the Confederacy, or are perceived as instruments and reminders of white supremacy, well, I’m not sorry to see them come down but my preferred solution would be to leave them up and raise monuments next to them that creates a dialectic and commemorate resistance.     

ACF, the F is for Community

The street sign for ACF and the front door leading into the Community Room.

Auburn Christian Fellowship located just behind the Auburn Alumni Center is a small campus ministry that has been a rock for me throughout my years here in Auburn. I first came to ACF as a freshman in 2015 along with my roommate at the time who was also a hometown friend. We came for a free dinner event, then a worship service, and before long it just became a part of our college routine. Attending we met most of our current Auburn friends and made all kinds of memories because of this place from whittling on the front porch to Nerf wars in the worship center. ACF is split into two main buildings: the worship center or Big Room and the Community Room. The Big room serves as the dining room for free dinner nights and the worship hall for Bible study. The Community Room is actually divided into 3 parts: a boys dorm, community room, and a girls dorm. The dorms are attached but have no connecting doors to each other or the community room. The community room serves as a common area for not only ACF residents, but everyone. The room is about the size of a large living room with couches centered around a TV and coffee table. The community room is full of a variety of games and activities for students who just need a break, but it also has separate rooms that serve as staff offices and study rooms.

The Big Room doors as seen from the porch

From the outside ACF has a very professional appeal with both buildings having matching brick walls with white accents and shingle roofs. The aesthetic of ACF from the inside of the buildings and even the front parking lot is a completely different experience. From the front parking lot there is a clear view of a large wrap around porch that encompasses the community room and is filled with rocking chairs and small tables. Often students sit on the porch and use it as a study space between classes, but with COVID, they’ve become a spot where people socialize. ACF has adapted to the COVID crisis quite well, the outside of all buildings have signs mandating the use of a mask on the premises and they require all visitors receive a temperature check and scan in using a QR code.

The ACF porch alive and busy with people eager to hang-out

Outside of the people and signs that dot the landscape ACF is a beautiful building in a slightly less than beautiful area. ACF is surrounded on it’s four sides by an older apartment complex, a cemetery, some small sorority houses, and the Alumni Center’s parking lot. The building itself is a bit of an odd-ball as it’s all red brick, white trim and shingles, whereas the buildings on its flanks boast wood and cinder block builds. The buildings are also not small in their size with the Big Room almost 2 stories in height and the Community Room being 2 stories with an attic. One of the nice things about the property’s landscape are the trees that surround the buildings. The perimeter is lined by crape myrtles and the porch has smaller japanese maples growing between it and the Big Room. The parking lot also has large Pin Oak trees at its edge that provide shade across the entirety of the pavement most of the day. The spacing of the buildings also provides good wind flow allowing breezes to sweep across the porch of hot days helping to cool it down.

ACF also has some history that it doesn’t show all that well. It was constructed in the 1970s after the land was donated to ACF’s founding board by a former Auburn fraternity. The current building and campus ministry have been running since then. Despite changes in staffing and renovations to the buildings, the ministry has operated essentially the same way since the 70s with community being the main focus. This community focus is reinforced by the openness of the buildings and the flow that they accommodate throughout the day with people always slowing as they pass through to greet friends or take a quick break from studying. In a way the landscape states the usage of the building better than the sign does.

The Multi-Generational Ownership of a Pocketknife

This pocketknife was initially owned by Otilio (Oscar) Rodriguez born December 13th 1926 and passed away January 20, 2012, and is know owned by his grandson Victor Raymond Rodriguez II born January 4, 1992. It is a standard pocketknife made circa 1960, with pearl handles, brass pins holding the artifact together, a single blade, and bottle opener. The object shows signs of extensive use made by the original owner: There is a worn thumb print on the pearl handle, the blade has been sharpened multiple times, the metal is slightly rusted, and the entire tool is dirty from use. As the structural integrity of the object diminished over time, Oscar began using the pocketknife as a letter opener.

After Oscar passed away, Victor claimed ownership of the pocketknife continuing its use as a letter opener. Victor claimed ownership of the pocketknife because no other family member showed interest in keeping the object. The pocketknife has sentimental and practical value to Victor, because not only does the object remind him of his grandfather Oscar, but he uses the tool to open mail on a semi-regular basis. Victor keeps the artifact in the top draw of his desk for easy access, and intends to hold onto the pocketknife for the foreseeable future. He intends on continuing to use the pocketknife as a letter opener until the structural integrity of the object diminishes to the point that it can no longer be used as a tool. Once the tool can no longer be used for practical purposes, Victor intends on placing the object in a “safe place” to protect it from further deterioration. He will perhaps place the objects with other items he has collected that possess connections to his family’s past.

Reflecting on Avondale Park

Avondale Park, 2020

            I visited Avondale Park in Birmingham for my landscape documentation. This park, and its surrounding neighborhood, is a landscape extremely familiar to me. I have sat here and observed on many occasions, but during this reflection, I attempted to observe the park, the people there, and how it felt without thinking of what I already know of the landscape. Despite my attempts to take a fresh look at the park, there remains a strong sense of place here for me because of my many hours here. I find familiarity in the sounds of people walking, ducks in the pond, and the traffic nearby. The woods and the pond create a smell of moss, dirt, and algae that surrounds the area. Very little has changed in the park since I started visiting it a few years ago, so a strong sense of familiarity, continuity, and comfort remains here.

            When I first walk up to the park today, I took note of the large, metal sign reading “Avondale Park” visible from the entrance. It sits in front of the pond, the focal point of the park. Surrounding the pond, there is an amphitheater, library, and baseball field. The park during these morning hours is quiet with only a few visitors other than myself. I see a couple walking quickly around the sidewalk that circles the pond, a man running with his large dog, and a woman sleeping on a bench near the pond. The front of the park gives the impression of community and recreation as its primary use and from the back, the amphitheater and the stage show that entertainment is another use of Avondale Park.

            Thinking on my visit, one of my first reflections is that Avondale Park remains a unique space within the city. Its location farther from the city center, away from the skyscrapers and corporate buildings, which allows for a sense of place more like a small community park than a planned city park. Another reflection I had focused on the history of the park. Only one historic marker in the park contextualizes any importance of the park. This marker, located off the trail in the very back of the park, discusses the now blocked natural spring that drew people to the area in the 1800s. The history and the importance of the park overall is lost to visiting people who don’t know the history. Historic markers could add so much to the space by telling the story of the zoo once there and the work done by the Friends of Avondale Park to rejuvenate the park for the community. Even the tall sign reading “Avondale Park” mimics the font and design of the Avondale Zoo sign once standing. This would transform the park from just a place of recreation and entertainment to one of known historical importance.

Object Biography

Silicone Ring c. 2017

Pictured is a simple black ring made of silicone. The surface is smooth and matte black and the interior of the band is engraved with the phrase, “Wait For It ;” The ring was hand molded and once the silicone cured, it was placed in a machine that engraved the phrasing. The ring was made in the state of Indiana in 2017 before being shipped to its owner Jerryn Puckett. It is an approximate United States size 7 but it shows signs of stretching from years of constant use. Other than the minor stretching, the ring shows little to no other significant evidence of wear.  It is mostly worn on the middle finger of her right hand

Throughout most of history, jewelry was used to portray not only status, but many pieces contained symbolic meaning. The company that manufactured the ring has been in business since 2010 which indicates that the ring itself is not a rare object. The engraving on the band differentiates Ms. Puckett’s ring from the rest of the ones that were manufactured.  For Ms. Puckett, the ring itself was a symbol of identity and dedication to herself and her goals. The pictured ring is not the only one she wore. For several years before purchasing the ring, she wore one in a similar style until it broke. When shopping for a replacement, she wanted a piece that resembled the original as to keep the original meaning. In her efforts, she found the small company in Indiana that offered custom engraving. The engraved phrase was suggested to her by a close friend. Inspired by the musical, Hamilton, the phrase “Wait For It ;” was suggested not only as a reminder of her goals and ambitions, but also that sometimes patience is critical.

Overall, the ring is valued at less than $10, but carries sentimental meaning. Since it arrived, it only has been removed on less than a handful of occasions and is often the only piece of jewelry she wears. Though the ring was purchased to replace another, it holds more symbolic meaning than the original. When it was purchased, Ms. Puckett was struggling with feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty for the future both vocationally and academically. Once she resolved some of these issues, the ring became a reminder of the struggles she faced and their resolution.