public history

Crossposted from NCPH’s Off the Wall blog, for which I wrote this post under the benevolent editorship of Cathy Stanton.  I’ve closed comments–do comment over there. 

Many unlikely and whimsical projects flourish on Twitter, the popular microblogging service just celebrating its fifth birthday. Big Ben strikes the hour (“bong bong bong”), encounters with near-earth objects are automatically updated (the most recent one missed the Earth by about three million kilometers), a parody account for a politician becomes a compelling scifi short story and the Field Museum’s T-Rex, Sue, turns out to have a wicked sense of humor.

Twitter’s constraints—140 characters per post, period—and affordances—those 140 characters can be filled with anything, communication can be synchronous or asynchronous, anyone can follow a twitter account—have boosted its popularity to around 190 million users. They also give us an opportunity to reflect on its resonances with the past. There is a strong community on Twitter of historians, cultural heritage professionals and genealogists—as well as historical characters tweeting for themselves.

Many have pointed out the connections between the terseness of Twitter and that of the telegrams, and the “telegraphic” language both require because of space constraints (luckily we don’t pay by the character on Twitter). But another familiar connection is with diaries. The factual, semi-public diary entries of line-a-day diarists of the 19th and early 20th centuries are short and pithy enough to make excellent tweets (pdf). Like the tweets of our friends, we follow them for frequent, short updates, enough to get a sense of the rhythms of their lives, what on the web we call “ambient intimacy.” Not every individual tweet will be a masterpiece, emotionally compelling or even interesting. But they help us understand the person who tweets them. The updates of historical diarists enable, not the immersion we desire from living history museums, but the ability to take a brief drink from a river that flowed long ago, and to dip in again whenever we like.

The historical diary is a thriving genre of Twitter performance. There are around a dozen historical diaries currently being tweeted, daily or sporadically. Some are produced by historical organizations and some by descendants of the diarists. There are famous diarists (yes, even Samuel Pepys is on Twitter) and everyday people. In 2009, for instance, the Massachusetts Historical Society started tweeting a diary of John Quincy Adams’ trip to Russia in 1809. He talks about travel, who visited, what he read. And @genny_spencer is the diary of a teenage girl in rural Illinois, tweeted by her descendants. Her great-nephew David Griner posted about the project: “Looking at the terse journal, my sister quipped, ‘This is the Twitter of the 1930s.’ We…immediately began planning the Twitter account…”

For tweeted historical diaries, what started as an imagined resonance between past and future communication technology—the observation that short diary entries feel like Twitter—becomes a real daily connection with people from the past. By reanimating and historical actors, we make this connection between historic communication platforms and Twitter real, and we also make this connection between us and historical characters real. Emotional connections make it real. And that’s a key insight for public history practice in less than 140 characters.

Call for Papers:

The Public History of Science and Technology

University of South Carolina

Columbia, SC

September 11-14, 2011

What role does history play in the general public’s understanding of science and technology? History is often the tool for hooking audiences and making science relevant to daily life.  From anecdotal introductions to sidebars in science textbooks, history plays an important, but often unexamined role, in explaining science to broad audiences.  Most people first encounter the history of science and technology in their K-12 science classes – their only formal science training – even if it is incidental and unrecognized.  They continue to encounter the history of science and technology through a variety of informal venues: museums, libraries, television documentaries, and popular science writing.

The University of South Carolina will host a conference September 11-14 to address the interaction of history, science, and the public.  This conference seeks to examine: What role does the history of science play in the public’s understanding of science and technology? What is the role of museums, libraries, television documentaries, and popular writing in educating audiences about science?  How can historians of science and technology best interact with science policy makers? What can university history departments and public history programs do to teach future science popularizers and educators?

The conference will open on Sunday afternoon with a reception and exhibit opening at McKissick Museum.   The conference will continue on Monday and Tuesday with traditional paper panels and roundtable discussions.  On Wednesday, there will be two half-day workshops.  The first, led by Ann Johnson, will focus on histories of emerging technologies, particularly in policy contexts.  The second, led by Allison Marsh, will focus on museums, material culture, and training public historians.

Potential themes to address include:

·History of Science and public policy

·History of scientific education and scientific literacy

·Library collections and the history of science

·Technologies of conservation of museum artifacts

·Opportunities for digital technologies in public history

·Journalism and writing in the history of science for the “general,” non-academic audience

·The role of federal government agencies in supporting the history of science

·The value of internships in training scholars to use material culture in their research

·How does the history of medicine affect current decisions about care?

·The place of history in discussions about emerging technologies in the context of both policy and public understanding

Keynote speakers include:

  Robert Bud, The Science Museum, London
  Sharon Babaian, Canada Science and Technology Museum
  Peter Liebhold, National Museum of American History
  Zuoyue Wang, California State University, Pomona

Deadline for Proposals: April 15, 2011

Accepted presenters will be notified by May 10, 2011

Conference organizers will accept both individual paper proposals and panel proposals. Alternative formats, such as roundtable discussions or object-based interactive discussions, are encouraged. Proposals should be no more than one page long and should be accompanied by a one page CV.  Email proposals as a single pdf document to Allison Marsh, Please list “PHoST Proposal” in the subject line.

Limited travel support is available for graduate students, junior, and independent scholars. If seeking travel funds, please include in your proposal a budget and justification for your transportation costs.  Students must include a brief letter of support from their advisors confirming their status as graduate students and indicating how the conference will enhance their studies.

Conference papers will be considered for possible publication as an edited volume.

Conference Organizers: Ann Johnson ( and Allison Marsh

We would also like to draw your attention to the Atlanta Conference on Science and Innovation Policy, September 15-17, 2011 at Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center. Atlanta is only a 3-4 hour drive or short flight from Columbia.  For more information about the Atlanta conference, see their website at

Or, you know, two.  In April.  That I’m attending.

Yes, indeed, the beloved unconferences on technology and the humanities are proliferating pleasantly, and I’m pleased to be going to two in the near future. Please try to come to one or both of these below:

First off:  Great Lakes THATCamp was so great last year we’re doing it again.  Same time, same place.  Michigan State, April 30th/May 1st. Please apply by March 11th!  Much respect to our organizational genius Ethan Wattrall.

Also:  at NCPH this year we’ll be having a THATCamp on Wednesday before the conference starts, down in Pensacola on April 6.  You can register for it when you register for NCPH in general (you’re going, right?) and the deadline is March 15.

Historic house museums are in trouble. Everybody says so. There are so many of them in North America, and they’re one of the most financially precarious types of museums, but they continue to proliferate. We have conference sessions called “Why are historic house tours so boring?”  Museum folks write practical books about doing something more sustainable with a historic house than starting a house museum.  But they can still provide amazing experiences to visitors–or at least ideas to wrestle with.

We don’t usually think about writers’ houses as a special set of historic house museums, and we don’t usually get a chance to step back and think through the whole enterprise of celebration/memorialization across the field from a visitor perspective.  So Anne Trubek’s Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a travelogue and critique of American writers’ house museums, is a welcome gift to thoughtful public historians.*

Trubek is skeptical that writers’ lives need public memorialization. Their books, she says, should be the way we remember them–and the money we spend to maintain their legacies by running writers’ house museums could buy many copies of their books. And in her travels to writers’ houses, she finds a lot to critique:  hagiography, inaccuracies, commercialization, sugarcoating of  unpleasant details, and wacky interpretive choices that tell the stories inappropriately.   But even the museums she hates for their inauthenticity (like Hannibal, MO and its Twain theme park) are interesting with her as tour guide.

My favorite parts of the book were the most museological.  Trubek visits the historic site commemorating the author Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward, Angel) and talks with its chief interpreter about the confusion about who it is the house is commemorating (not Tom Wolfe with the white suit), why the house was important in his life, and why we should continue to commemorate him.  She laments that the gifted interpreter is working at the Wolfe site and not, say, Colonial Williamsburg.  This section seemed unnecessarily pessimistic to me (it’s worthwhile to preserve some old houses, even if the people who lived there weren’t famous!) but was an interesting way to think about how visitors see less high-profile sites.

The other chapter I liked a great deal was about her visit to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house in Dayton, where an interpreter facilitated an amazing encounter with Dunbar’s life and work (it also helps that Dunbar, of all the writers whose houses she visits, is one of the only ones I actually enjoy reading).  This is a useful perspective on how someone with a passion for a story can communicate that passion to visitors. (Here’s another example from Nina Simon.)   A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses is a funny, smart, critical visitor perspective on some particular house museums and the whole enterprise of  doing history in houses.


*(Full disclosure: Anne is my friend on the internets, as well as a professor at my alma mater, and sent me a prepublication copy of the book, though I didn’t get around to writing about it till now.)

I expect you all have heard about the controversy regarding a work pulled under political pressure by the Smithsonian from the queer portraiture show “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery. For background, Tyler Green has been covering this story exhaustively.  Apparently the word to cut “A Fire in My Belly” came directly from Secretary Wayne Clough, who has otherwise by all accounts been doing good things at SI.  It’s a sad litany of  inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.  I agree that the call for Clough to resign is misguided. I also like this analysis of Wojnarowicz’s piece as religious art. Welcome back to the culture wars, friends.

If you live in Washington state. contact your representatives about the governor’s plan to slash funding and indefinitely shutter (pdf) the Museum of Northwest Arts and Culture in Spokane. More info here. (via Larry Cebula on fb)

Some good news:  a great article about Minnesota local history organizations, featuring the Richfield Historical Society.

One stolen artifact has been returned to the Wisconsin Historical Society–hopefully first of many.

Reverb10 is a thoughful year-in-review writing project picked up by folks all over the web.  I’ve been enjoying reading the posts of our colleague Krista McCracken, who is using the prompts to evaluate her public history practice.

NCPH has put up the program for next year’s meeting, April 6-9 in Pensacola. A generous percentage of workshops and sessions will be held at Historic Pensacola Village, which, besides being an excellent site for a public history conference, has free wireless.

Speaking of NCPH conferences, in 2012 we’re meeting jointly with OAH in Milwaukee, which means proposals are due insanely early, this February 1.  Get busy!

The public image of what the war was like (bloody and muddy) and meant (pointless) has remained strikingly constant over the last four decades.

An interesting analysis of public memory of WWI in Britain, posted recently on H-Public.

Memorialization is always fraught and problematic.  But we can’t let Wilfred Owen do our history work for us. As a historian my personal practice is usually focused on the objects and people that we fail to insist are important, fail to remind ourselves of.   There are usually a few people who care deeply about these kinds of things (my dispatches from the fringes of the history of technology), at least intellectually. But when faced with enormous incidents of public memory around wars  I’m always struck by the depth of feeling that emerges, that billows over.  It’s about emotional truth–and public historians working on appropriate memorial institutions and projects–not treacly, hagiographic or inaccurate, but not cynical and contemptuous either–have hard decisions to make.  Here’s to historians trying to get the stories right.

This weekend is the SHOT conference, which this year happens in Tacoma, and which I am sad not to be able to attend, especially since last year’s conference was so interesting and energizing. (Do please keep us up to date if you’re there.)

However, this is an excellent opportunity to respond to a request for presentation tips and resources from a blog reader who is giving her first conference presentation later this month.

First, the web is full of advice on conference-paper giving.  A few posts and pieces that I like and which should be fine foundations:

Is there anything different about giving a presentation at a public history conference than at any other type of academic or professional conference?  I think there are two things–an emphasis on good presentation and a presumption of good will.

Speaking well

Public historians are supposed to be good at public-facing work.  That doesn’t mean that we are all great speakers by birth, but that clear and engaging presentations are expected.  They are both good practice for your usual projects/institutions and also a nice way to show that your work is part of the field.

So don’t read your paper!  The best way to get off the paper is to practice.  To practice requires, then, that you write the paper (or the detailed outline/notes, which is what I usually work from) and prepare the slides in advance.

And yes, you should probably have some slides, preferably with pretty pictures that illustrate and/or provide evidence for your points.  If you have none, you at least need a slide with your contact information on it, and one with an outline of the talk.  Use as few words as possible on your slides–just enough to cue your audience as to where you are in the talk and why they should care.

Once you have a rough paper and presentation, practice.  Perform your talk to the air, to the mirror, to your friends.  That will help you get off the paper, pare down and polish your word choices, and discover places that need work.  If you’re a student, arrange a session of practice talks for you and your friends; it helps to get feedback from colleagues.  Practice and the confidence it builds will also help you to field questions during your talk (if you’re into that) and have a more dialogic presentation.  Assume that your audience is interested in your topic. Be enthusiastic. Don’t apologize.

Anyway, these are all suggestions for the 20-minute conference paper.  We know that there are lots of learning and presentation styles, and that lectures are not at all the most engaging way to learn, convey information, or start a dialogue.   Do push for panel discussions, working groups, roundtables, unconference sessions, small group discussions, poster sessions and other kinds of presentations at your conferences and professional associations.

Public historians have your back

Certainly many disciplines would like clear and engaging presentations at their conferences, and would like folks to stop reading their papers, which is, incredibly, often the default.  No matter what the presentation style, however, at many academic conferences there are folks in the audience who are combative, contrarian and hostile to emerging scholars.  The classic question after a conference paper is a long one that “is really a comment” and is meant to prove the commenter’s chops rather than talk about the paper just given.

At public history conferences, however, I have found that people tend to be kind and comments tend to be constructive and interesting.  We are engaged in an enterprise that is not about us.  The goal is to help people make meaning from the past, and we want to hear about what practitioners have been doing to that end, to bring insights back to our own practice and to help our colleagues do better.  So whatever your presentation looks like and however much you misspoke, your colleagues are going to be generous.

I hope this is helpful.  If anyone has suggestions, do share them in the comments!

A few links on public history from around these webs:

Please start reading the excellent Fredericksburg Remembered and its sister blog Mysteries and Conundrums from folks from the NPS at Fredericksburg.   Thanks to @jmcclurken for bringing them to my attention.

The Civil War Augmented Reality Project is a neat project prototyping AR binoculars for Civil War landscape interpretation.  Their kickstarter is in its last days; give them a boost!

NCPH has a new blog:  Off the Wall is a place for “critical reviews of history exhibit practice in an age of ubiquitous display.”  The reviews up already are thoughtful, smart and unexpected, and I’m sure they will continue to be so even when my posts appear.

Magpie is wondering about defining “historian,” and if her reenactor communities “count.”

Are you all reading Prerogative of Harlots, Chris Norris’ excellent blog on issues in natural history collections?  Though I resent the general elision of “art museum” to “museum,” I fear that when talking about museum collections challenges I’m just as parochial and tend to leave out natural history.  Chris’ provocations are essential here.

ArchivesNext is continuing to explore this “citizen archivist” idea and what a “participatory archives” would look like.  I like how all the LAM fields are addressing these issues:  what does it mean to be open and encourage engagement and participation in our work, the communal work of collecting, preserving and providing access to cultural (and natural!) heritage materials?

We held a Maker Faire at my institution this past weekend, and it was an amazing expression of artistic/technological creativity. There were around 300 makers, and several tens of thousands of visitors who had to the opportunity to learn how to solder, knit and pick locks; to ride on strange bicycle merry-go-rounds; to watch and hear neuronal activity in a cockroach’s leg; to listen to a light-triggered player piano play “Let It Be” while nearby an Edison phonograph from our collection played a popular song of a different age; to open a computer and see how it works.  (And Tim O’Reilly visited the museum and called it “the Louvre of the industrial age!”)  It was an inspiring experience.

A post on the Make blog rightly argued that one great thing about Maker Faire is the “relative mainstreaming we offer to creative weirdness:”  that the silly things (the art car with the Billy the Basses that sing Gilbert and Sullivan) are as important as the serious science stuff, but in a different way.  One power wheels racing hacker I talked to said that he learned all kinds of mechanical skills working on his little power wheels car.  I think a willingness to find value at the fringes and in the everyday is also reflected in our museum practice.  We have important steam engines; we also have Speak n Spells.

I’ve been thinking about the accessibility and visibility of kinds of technological activities–and in this context I mean accessible as in “readily understandable to a visitor.” A human-powered vehicle that shoots flames is pretty accessible in this sense.  A Casio keyboard opened up for kids to learn how to rewire it to make strange noises is a little less accessible.  A RepRap busily printing its own parts is much less so; it requires significant interpretation for a visitor to understand what it is and why it’s important.  The emphasis at Maker Faire is on hardware, on what people can see and touch easily, without much prior experience or frame of reference.  Software history and innovation is harder to display–which of course we’ve found in exhibit practice–what you show is not the thing (the code) but what it can do.  But the code is important too.  A lot of our museum practice, especially for cultural heritage technologists, is, in this sense, very inaccessible to the public.  When I ran into some librarian colleagues, they talked about the player piano they had just seen and how one might catalogue player piano rolls and to what standard–this is the kind of work that LAM types do, but it’s work that’s not visible to visitors, and needs explanation (why do you care? why does it matter?).  I’d like us to try harder to make our practice as museum types visible and accessible to the public.

It’s been instructive to prepare for and experience Maker Faire while watching the development of One Week One Tool, the NEH Summer Institute at CHNM where folks created a digital humanities tool in one week.  The process of doing software development in the digital humanities was as important as the eventual tool.  I found the fact that they were doing the work in public (though keeping the tool a secret) inspiring, helping to throw open what digital humanities might be by showing how it’s done.

Throughout Maker Faire I was waiting for a stranger to ask me, “What do you make?”  I make history.  Let’s show everyone how it’s done, and how the public can be makers of history too.

At the inventive, playful and democratic new history galleries at the Oakland Museum, which I had the pleasure to visit last month, there is a section about objects.  What does it mean for an object to be in a museum?  What sounds do different objects make?  How do you tell objects apart?  Visitors can also explore what it means to BE a museum object–there’s a photo opp where visitors can stand in a case with oversized tags reading things like “most beautiful thing in the museum” or “ancient artifact.”  I want to talk about that “ancient artifact” tag.  It’s a common joke, but it gets to a history museum phenomenon I’m struggling to understand.

Contemporary collecting of everyday objects for a history institution is an interesting beast.  Often we use recent objects to provide an emotional hook for visitors into the stories and contexts of unfamiliar objects of the past (a 1990s cellphone for an exhibit of telephones from the 1880s on, for instance).  But it’s more complicated.  People of a certain age, usually under 50, when seeing a childhood toy or object they used in their lifetime, are totally derailed from any interpretive context or social interaction and say this:  “Oh no, I’m so old!  My stuff is in a museum!”

Despite any assurances that this means not that the visitor is “old,” but that their stories are important, it’s very difficult for visitors to get over this experience of seeing their recent past as “history.”  This phenomenon might be less pronounced in a local or community history museum; letting aside the reverence value an object gains simply from becoming part of a museum collection, I suspect that the severity is greater at my current museum, where iconic, sainted objects of national importance share the floor with the Speak n Spell.*

Certainly there’s nothing wrong with reminding visitors of their mortality, or of making room for and supporting visitors’ varied emotional reactions to museum artifacts and experiences, but I’m worried that this “I’m old” reaction is harmful to visitors and museums.  In a relentlessly neophilic age, history museums contextualize novelties and remind visitors of historical continuities almost erased by the American culture’s collective short attention span.  If visitors leave with the idea that their lives are museum pieces, rather than that museums reflect their lives, are we doing them a disservice?  If they leave feeling that their stories are outdated and over, rather than important and historically valuable, are we doing good public history?

Has anyone done research on this phenomenon?  I welcome any references or leads!

*Which always features in my tours.

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