You’ve heard about college classes for fine art, for chemistry, for calculus, and even for barbecue – but have you ever heard about a class based solely on the rich history of antiques? At Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, one professor has spent over 30 years in the same classroom on the same day at the same time (really!) teaching about the importance of keeping the stories of antiques alive. Former Dean of Students Margaret Sizemore started the class at Samford with around 30 students in 1972, and Professor Dan Brooks has kept the spirit alive. The theme of the class changes each semester, which is why some members have been taking it for decades.
In hearing about Professor Dan Brooks and his passion for “making history personal and making things personal,” we were intrigued. While many people think of antiques in terms of Antiques Roadshow or how much they’d get at the auction, Brooks examines the pieces through a different lens. “I’m not interested in how much something is worth,” he told us. “If it teaches you something, it’s of great value.”
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He also mentioned that he feels like a lot of antiques are ‘glamorized’ in today’s society. “Sometimes we take note of what’s popular and we try to give it national appeal. But then, the object loses the identity of what it is on its own merit.” In turn, Brooks encourages his students to let the antiques “stand on their own,” and get to know them for what they’re worth. The class includes a handful of guest speakers; field trips – which, in talking to the students, is their favorite part; and even a ‘show and tell’ day that allows students to bring in objects from their personal collections to the class.
This semester, the class’ theme is “New Seeds In Old Gardens.” As he was describing the reason for choosing this theme, Brooks emphasized that we must be “looking to the future and planting seeds in our own gardens: our families, our children, and our grandchildren.” To do this, we must “look in the gardens of our ancestors.”
Going into the class, we were anticipating a lecture on how to care for your antiques or what qualifies an object as an antique. What we got, however, was a slew of interesting stories on the history of the Vine and Olive colony in Alabama and how those members – like master silversmith Simon Chaudron – laid the foundation for some of the most precious antiques in the country. Since antiques classes are relatively rare, we wanted to share five things that we learned from spending an afternoon with Dan Brooks at Samford.
1. Even small marks can tell a story.
Brooks told the story of Simon Chaudron, explaining that this master silversmith was the first to use sterling silver as the standard. So, the stamping of both “Chaudron” and “.925” (the inscription for sterling silver) takes you through the history of the piece.
2. Learning about the past doesn’t just come from library archives.
If I were to research antiques, my first thought would be to find a book at the library or ask an antiques dealer. While these are still great research options, some of the richest history lessons can be taught in old homes, overgrown gardens, and city streets around you.
3. Antiques are more than just champagne buckets or your grandmother’s china.
“I’ve seen the Danube and seen the Rhine,” said Brooks, “But nothing thrills me like a piece of home.” We don’t often think about antiques as more than old silver or vintage furniture. Brooks challenges his students to broaden their scope of antiques by considering the rivers, the lakes, the beaches, and the fields around them. These natural wonders tell some of the most poignant stories about what’s happened in the area.
4. It’s our job to keep the passion for antiques alive.
Without someone to keep the stories going through generations, the history behind antiques will be forgotten. Brooks emphasizes that we have to “nurture our interests or they will fade or become overgrown.” The same rings true when it comes to passing along the value and worth of family heirlooms. It’s a generational duty to pull seeds from our ancestry and plant them into the gardens of future generations.
5. All you need to appreciate antiques is “a vivid imagination.”
When asked what he wanted from his students, Brooks replied that all he needed was “a vivid imagination.” The goal of the course is to gain a fresh perspective and a new appreciation for old items that you’ve had around for years.
For more information, and to learn how you can register for future semesters, visit samford.edu/go/aota or call (205) 726-2739.