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Kentucky college teaches history by using antiques
By Eric C. Rodenberg

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — College students here at Northern Kentucky University are learning – not by going to the Internet, but by getting out of the classroom and going to an antique shop, show or flea market.

What better way to teach history, says Brian Hackett, the university’s director of the Public History program.

“My students think history is contained in books, or on the Internet,” he said. “Most of them have no concept that really looking at a piece of furniture can open a new world. We can look at a shipping label, and we may see the piece originated in Indianapolis, was carted down the Old National Road and where it stopped prior to arriving in Cincinnati.

“We can also see how it was made, what the economics were of the time, and see the prevailing tastes of the era. We can then extrapolate that into what we know historically and we get a better understanding of our heritage.”

Hackett’s course – History 630; An Introduction to American Decorative Arts is popular among graduate students on the NKU campus, located south of the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

“Dr. Hackett has really sparked my interests,” says second-year graduate student Sarah Morgan. “I’ve been antiquing, even in high school; but, I’ve never really had much knowledge of what I was looking at … if it appealed to me, and was within my budget, I bought it.

“But, now I know what’s good. If it’s something, like say stoneware, I know more about how it was made, who likely made it, what the utilitarian value of the piece was and I can better connect with the people who handled the piece years ago. Dr. Hackett is real laid back, but he knows his stuff.”

For many students, the coursework is life-changing. Student Kate Eubanks said she will never look at an antique the same.

“Dr. Hackett really paints a picture of the times – whether it’s with a piece of furniture or a soda bottle,” Eubanks said. “The breadth of his knowledge is amazing. It’s really exciting that he can take that knowledge and put it into context with what was going on in the past.”

Before earning his Ph.D. in 2009, Hackett was a museum director and curator for 20 years. But, more importantly, he learned about antiques as a child from his grandmother who was an antique dealer throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Hackett is also a collector, albeit not very focused. He admits his field trips tend to lead to more personal accumulations.

“I have a lot of interests,” he said. “But our house is relatively small, and my wife won’t let me accumulate too much. We have 25 chairs – examples of Gothic, Empire, Victorian and more. You can buy these relatively cheaply, and they make good classroom examples.

“But, like my daughter says, we have all these chairs; but no one is allowed to sit on them – lots of them are fragile and some are relatively rare.”

To his knowledge, Hackett said his course is the only classroom in the United States which makes field trips to antique shops and flea markets. The Burlington Antique Show at the Boone County Fairgrounds only 10 miles south of Cincinnati is a favored site for his class.

“Some of the people there are so nice,” he said. “There are real antiques there, and many of the dealers go out of their way to share their knowledge with my students.

“It sure beats going to a museum where you aren’t able to handle, and turn the items over for inspection. It’s also somewhat frustrating to go to a museum and see a piece described as ’circa 1800.’ If they can’t get any closer to the year – say at least within 20 years – they shouldn’t be in the business.”

Many of Hackett’s students become collectors, and knowledgeable collectors, at that.

“Dr. Hackett is helping me start a collection of antique tea cups,” Sarah Morgan said. “I now have 10 cups. There’s something about them that speaks to a period in which people took the time to sit down in the middle of the day and have a convivial cup of tea.

“If I find a good one and I know that it’s legitimate and has history to it, I’ll splurge and buy it for $30.”

And $30 is a lot of money for a student who is working to pay her way through college. But someday, in all probability, Morgan and her fellow students will become part of the foundation of the antiques industry.

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