Meet Christopher Matthews

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The Reverse Art of Archaeology is digging up the stories of Orange before and after I-280 was built. Meet the archaeologist behind this unique project.

Christopher N. Matthews is a historical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Montclair State University. His research interests are the archaeology of capitalism, slavery, and race in the United States as well as community-based research.

Talk about the concept of Reverse Archaeology
Reverse archaeology is an invented idea that came to me after getting to know Orange through my contacts at MSU, the University of Orange, and the community schools. What seemed so evident is how much people took for granted that 280 damaged the city by creating a giant excavated trench right through the heart of Orange. Being an archaeologist, this sounded to me like description of an archaeological site that was excavated but never interpreted or understood. So, a reverse archaeology is a way of thinking about how we can put back what the highway has taken away through memories, stories, and a closer understanding of those living in Orange today. In one sense, this is a novel way to frame an archaeological project, but in another its really just what archaeologists always do.

How do you want this project to restore Orange pride?

The memory of what Orange was like before the interstate should provide a combination of nostalgia for past years as well as clues to how successful communities were built and organized in the city that can be used today.

What has surprised you so far in the project? 
So far I am not so much surprised by what we have done as pleased. The RA team is a masterful combination of well balanced and articulated talents that are blending academic, artistic, and community engagement approaches in wonderful ways. If I am surprised it is when I see how well the work of my colleagues expands the vision of what I hope to accomplish in my own work.

What can we expect?
My job is to collect oral histories and historical documents. So far, I have interviewed more than 40 past and present residents of Orange from the African American and Italian American communities, which were the communities most impacted by the interstate. These stories detail vital aspects of two very powerful cultural histories and communities that no longer exist. Memoirists have also provided straight forward commentary on how 280 was the cause of so much change and struggle in Orange. The result of this work will be a rich archive of personal memories, observations, and memorabilia that will bring to life how these two groups settled and created vibrant and important migrant/immigrant urban communities. These findings will inform and inspire new artworks and performances that will be on display in Orange, allowing residents to learn about and see way that the city’s history can be part of its future.

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You can meet Chris, along with the other archaeologists next Friday, March 11th at the opening of the Unearthing the Future: The Art of Archaeology at the Orange Public Library 6:30-8:30pm.

For more information please follow Reverse Archaeology in Orange on Facebook.  

Written by Patricia Rogers

One thought on “Meet Christopher Matthews

  1. I moved to Orange in late August 1983. My mother was attending Rutgers and she did not own a car at the time, so Orange was the perfect location. We moved from Bridgewater, NJ, so talk about a different world. I will never forget the train ride to Newark Penn Station and then the #44 Tremont bus ride to our Scotland Road apartment, directly across from the train tracks. I was a month away from turning nine. I had never taken the bus prior to that day and have taken one pretty much every day since. We were going to clean and get the place set up for our furniture which was to arrive the next day. We left Orange in 1996, but I thank God for my upbringing. Orange was already predominantly African-American by 1983 and I am White, and it was never an issue. I grew up to never see skin color but the person behind the skin instead, and I do not think I would have gotten that growing up in Bridgewater. My Orange years were filled with attending Heywood Avenue school before Our Lady of the Valley after 6th grade and attending mass at Our Lady of the Valley church. Main Street was the spot for back-to-school and Christmas shopping. I wish I had a dime for every time I walked across 280 to go to the library and back…I felt like I was walking across the sky when on that overpass! I live in Englewood now, a city that has much in common with Orange though has fared much better over the years. Returning to Orange as a homeowner is not something I would ever rule out but, regardless, I am absolutely thrilled that this project is going on!

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