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It is a testament to the quality and high level of engagement of this year’s NCPH conference that the web is already full of conference reports; here’s mine. The NCPH/OAH meeting in Milwaukee was full of interesting sessions on vital work in the field, passionate people doing good history, free wifi, and excellent beer. I’m clearly biased as a native rustbelter, but Milwaukee was a fine place for 2000+ historians to gather—friendly, compact, and with its own history to explore.

The conference began with a THATCamp with the usual quotient of inquiry and energy. After the conference had officially opened, our session on contemporary DIY movements and public history institutions (which, thanks to Kate Freedman’s presentation, became known as “the steampunk panel”) was on Thursday morning. The presentations were followed by a challenging discussion, and we’ll be putting some version of the panel online.

I also heard a great panel about interpreting women’s history at unlikely places. “Assume women were there,” said Heather Huyck of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, capping off the session after a surprising presentation about interpreting Julia Dent Grant and enslaved women at the US Grant Historic Site in St Louis. Many posts on other sessions can be found at History @Work, as well as discussions of some of the organizational issues at stake, in particular the still-up-in-the-air fate of The Public Historian journal.

Milwaukee’s museums were another highlight of the trip for me. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the Milwaukee Public Museum, one of America’s great encyclopedia museums. The typewriter was invented by Milwaukee resident Christopher Sholes and the MPM has one of the world’s best typewriter collections, which the curator graciously took me into storage to see.  The exhibitry there is also fascinating; they have an enormous amount of natural history and anthropology content, told through dioramas, including early work by Carl Akeley.  I also visited the art-of-engineering museum and the lovely mid-century conservatory, The Domes.

See you next year in Ottawa!

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.)

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