March 2011


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.

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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, marsha@mailbox.sc.edu. 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 (annj@sc.edu) and Allison Marsh
(marsha@mailbox.sc.edu).

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 http://www.atlantaconference.org.