What in the world does a description of a 1786 Charleston dinner party and an African-American hooded colonoware bowl have to do with the city's architecture?

In short, the study of the city's buildings also is the study of its people.

Anyone curious about how a leading thinker connects these kinds of dots should consider taking time Friday to listen to Bernard Herman, an American Studies professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

He will be one of several speakers at the third annual Virtuviana symposium to be held at the Charleston Museum this week, a symposium that explores early classical architecture in America and the Lowcountry's contribution to it.

Among all the speakers, Herman's talk may be the most unique, weaving together his interest in material culture, historic preservation and architectural documentation.

"It's not going to be like your straight-up architectural history talk," he says. "I'm very interested in the public nature of private spaces."

Herman is no stranger to Charleston.

One of his books, "Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1760-1830," includes a chapter on Charleston. It tells the story about Billy Robinson, a slave tried for his role in the Denmark Vesey revolt.

Herman says Robinson's story is interesting because he presented what amounts to an architectural defense, arguing he couldn't have participated in the revolt because his accuser, a fellow slave and plotter, would have been seen entering and leaving the Elliott Street quarters where Robinson lived.

"People presumed a culture of surveillance and a sort of arrogance of control there," he says, adding his favorite part is this irony: Robinson was convicted because the early 19th-century court throws out the testimony of white witnesses in favor of a black witness, certainly an uncommon occurrence in the days of slavery.

Herman says he will talk about a detailed description of a Charleston dinner party that Timothy Ford wrote around 1786.

"He talks about how the guests assembled but then how the party keeps getting sort of run aground by the servants who act in ways that could be constructed as inept, but they also could be constructed as acts of resistance," he says.

"It's the world of little things that yields big meanings and bit insights," he adds.

For instance, Herman says a seemingly simple African-American colonoware bowl raises all sorts of question about its use.

"What's interesting here is again these are objects in terms of how we might think about government and identity and social identity and power," he says. "Think about how much governance gets done today over dinner or in sidebar conversations that aren't limited to monuments we associate with government and civil society."

He notes it's easy to get into a prescriptive mode about what happened in important civic buildings when in the reality, the situation was really more fluid.

"I've said for a long time, 18th-century people, certainly 18th-century elites, were much more effective in consolidating their power in the 21st century than they were in their own lifetimes," he says. "We have largely bought into narratives that are exactly like these constructions of power when in fact, we know from Timothy Ford's dinner party or footed colonoware bowl, that it was all much more contested."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.