As perhaps you’ve noticed, I am now a contributor to The Atlantic Technology channel.  I’ve recently written about typewriter nostalgia, shorthand, and Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality.  Do subscribe to the channel; there’s a continuous stream of historically inflected work there, as well as historiography of technology disguised as current tech news analysis.

A few blog- and Suzanne-related notes:

  • This spring you’ll see me in Milwaukee at the NCPH/OAH conference (for which a hashtag has not yet been determined).  Our panel “Museums and Makers:  Intersections of Public History from Steam Trains to Steampunk” will be Thursday, April 19 at 10:30. Be there.  The conference program is online now.
  • Prompted by Mark Tebeau‘s discussion of museum blogs the other day on twitter, I have revised my blogroll for the first time in years: an updated mix of museum, public history, and history of science/technology/medicine blogs.  Though I personally blog only sporadically these days, my colleagues are doing some excellent thinking and writing.

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.

Remember this conference?

This great event about the Public History of Science and Technology will be happening September 11-14 at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC.  The program is up and registration will soon follow. I’ll be talking about cabinets of curiosity and contemporary museum practice on the 13th, and the program is filled with great colleagues.  Hope to see you there.

Last week the open access book project Alt-Academy:  Alternative Academic Careers for Humanities Scholars was officially unveiled by our fearless facilitator and editor Bethany Nowviskie.  In it are lots of thoughtful, challenging essays about careers, identities, labor and respect in fields allied to humanities scholarship from colleagues across the world.  There’s a strong showing from digital humanities folks and academic and special library librarians.  I contributed a piece on public history (natch), and a number of other history colleagues also wrote essays.  Do go read and comment on our lovely book.

As many of you know, I recently returned from two weeks in Mongolia.  I’m still thinking over what I saw, but in the meantime, here are some photographs to tide you over.  (No dinosaurs, though–sorry!  No dinosaur photography was allowed in the natural history museum.)

Today Eric Johnson and I have a guest post at Museum 2.0 about Oldenberg’s The Great Good Place, part of this month’s discussion on the book.  Do go read it: we shoutout to John Cotton Dana.

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