public history

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.

We had a fun, thought-provoking THATcamp unconference today in conjunction with the NCPH annual meeting here in surprisingly beautiful and charming Pensacola.  It was less technical perhaps than some other THATcamps, but it was great to be rooted in public history mindsets and methodologies, and to meet some passionate colleagues.

A few standout sessions and moments:  To start off the morning, I went to a session addressing the tensions around crowds, experts and shared authority.  We had a great discussion about setting up frameworks for participation in UGC and crowdsourcing projects, as well as training.  Mark Tebeau (a colleague I was delighted to meet IRL) talked about how a user in his 70s became a prolific blogger for a local history project.  Anne Whisnant was insightful about crowd/expert issues in her project as well.  I also found myself invoking Nina’s ideas about participatory projects many times over the course of the day.

After attending sessions on maps, building public history community online and oral history, we ended the day with a discussion on “Digital Public History–what is it?”  This is the kind of definitional discussion I usually have limited patience for, but we had an interesting, wide-ranging discussion on DH, public history, and where we fit as a field.  Serge Noiret made a case for why definitions could be useful, especially in European public history contexts:

@sergenoiret:  @publichistorian @amwhisnantdefinition needed because positioning yourself vis-a-vis peers academy historical science #thatcamp #ncph2011
But of course we don’t have a definition for public history, and we don’t have a definition for digital history. (And we spent some time on the equally unanswerable tangent:  is all digital history public history?)  And we don’t need one, I think.  We don’t have a checklist of characteristics that make a history project “public history.” We’re drawn together, instead, by resonances between our institutional missions; our shared values bring us together.  The values of DH are not necessarily the same as those of public history, but they certainly overlap. NCPH’s code of ethics is a good articulation of public history values.
Many thanks to all who attended and who tweeted from afar, and to the NCPH and CHNM folks who helped make it happen.

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.)

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