September 2011


This year’s MacArthur fellows have been announced, and I was delighted to see that Tiya Miles, a public historian at the University of Michigan whose work on Afro-Cherokee history won an NCPH book award this year, was one of the winners.  (Also, she’s a Minnesota grad.)  Many congratulations!

Another historian was among the winners–Jacob Soll, who does early modern book and political history.

Previous coverage of museum and history MacArthur winners: 2007, 2008.

This post is part of a blog celebration of two-year anniversary of the #twitterstorians community, organized by the indefatigable Katrina Gulliver.

I’ve spent most of the past two years working on a very large automotive history exhibit. 80,000 sq ft, to be exact–bigger than most museums and probably the biggest exhibit I will ever have the opportunity to help develop. Besides vehicles, the exhibit includes 65 exhibit cases, which are thematic and put automotive history into a broader cultural context. I curated 21 of them.

To avoid museum fatigue and to try to ensure that visitors would read some of the text, we had very severe word limits. I found myself explaining the importance of the Erie Canal in 20 words in a caption to a commorative medal, the entire career of Andrew Riker in 40, the immense importance of kerosene in the 19th century in 20-some, and how a Stirling engine works in a frequently-rewritten 25. And while I was writing, I turned to my experiences—and community—on Twitter.

I’m often asked (and often asked on Twitter) if Twitter has changed my exhibit writing. It has. I live on Twitter and have become very comfortable talking about my own experiences—work, food, bike rides, friendships, religion—140 characters at a time. When I was stumped in label-writing–for instance on that kerosene paragraph, in an exhibit case about American experiences with petroleum–I started breaking my labels up into tweets. When I fatalistically believed I could never fit the content I thought vital for visitors into 45 words, I had to reframe my thinking: this label is three tweets long. I know instinctually how much content can fit in three tweets. These are constraints I understand, constraints that work. And it worked. The words and concepts fell into place in my newly-conceptualized mental space.

Besides reframing my writing into tweets, I benefited from my community on twitter. This includes stalwart historians who tend to use the #twitterstorians hashtag, as well as museum professional colleagues, but it also includes the scientists, writers, journalists and miscellaneous friends who found my process interesting and worth cheering on. Whenever I needed encouragement, syntactical help, or just to complain a little, someone from my extended Twitter community was available. This ambient support and critique helped make my writing possible. Thank you, Twitter, and thank you, #twitterstorians.