Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Historical diaries find a new platform in Twitter

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.

~ Suzanne Fischer

Monday, March 7, 2011

Hen House History: No Harm, No Fowl

I am obsessed with a chicken coop.

On a long and poorly charted road trip this past summer, I wandered into Lake Solano Park campground, located on the quiet banks of Putah Creek just off California Highway 128. The campground is on land originally populated by Patwin Indians, then homesteaded in 1875 by Daniel Tucker who managed a cattle and sheep operation and quarried limestone from local hills for area building foundations. Teeming with wild peacocks (legend holds they were brought in to manage the rattlesnakes), the campground proper was established by the Bureau of Reclamation (“B of Rec” in local-speak) in 1973 and is currently managed by Solano County Parks.

Two sturdy bird houses stand in the large and open campground, near the public showers, one on each side of the narrow road. Open on three sides but fully enclosed in wire—presumably to keep the objects in and the humans out—one coop held the expected collection of birds. For a quarter dropped into a gumball machine, both the tiny Silkies and uncaged visitors were briefly entertained by a handful of cracked corn. Just across the campground road is a second coop (a “hen house” in local-speak). Contents: a miniature museum. Thus began my obsession with this surprising and out-of-the-way staging of local history.

I spoke with Duane Davis, just-retired from Solano County Parks after 35 years of service as Ranger Supervisor, and exchanged emails with his wife, Leslie. Both were graciously helpful and patient with my many questions and emails. The structures alone have an interesting story as told by Mr. Davis.

“The present day Hen House evolved from a smaller enclosure. A nearby neighbor learned of the park theme and donated a few birds along with historical farm equipment from the local area and barn wood for other displays. The campers and their children liked the addition. The first birds were attacked by a bobcat one night and witnessed by the nearby camp host. Attempts were made to strengthen the enclosure and roof the pen. More birds were donated (Chickens and Doves) by the same source and Guinea Hens by myself. Various campers donated money, food and wire. That summer a horde of large rats got under the wire and were found dining on unhatched hen eggs. A concerned camping family made a large money donation. I copied the enclosures design after one at the Sacramento Zoo. Volunteers, Sheriff inmates, and park staff built what you see today, I think in 2000 or 2001.”

“Sheriff’s inmates”? Now this is getting interesting.

Lacking a larger county agenda, the Hen House was a labor of love by proud, local people. Haphazard and humble, it appears almost accidental. The barn wood used for the structure and featured objects within the structure came from the “old Hubert ranch,” though being a stranger in their country, I could not appreciate the significance of the Huberts. The tiny display housed a limited and dusty collection of objects, unlabeled and without contextualization. A small sign provided a frustratingly meager amount of information.

I am an admitted museum snob. I like things tidy, well-organized, with lots of in–depth information and well–placed wall boards. Hen House had none of these. So what was it about this display that spoke to me—that stopped me in my tracks? Is this a new and unique development in public history? No. Is this a critical component of public history? Yes. Because of its very simplicity, this casual accumulation of objects invited curious engagement. What was this stuff behind the wire and where did it come from? How was it used and by whom? What were the complexities and humanity of those lives? How did time move forward for the people but not for the objects left behind? Can the intimate history of person:possession ever be recovered?

Absent formality or sophisticated scholarship, these homespun efforts may provoke sniffs from professionals. The Hen House museum obviously lacked the staffing and skills of trained curators and historians found at “real” museums. But the formality of access to these museums--location, hours, admission fees, rigorous professionalism--engenders a preemptive contract with visitors to engage the exhibit in a certain way. Historical museums, just like the news, or a textbook, or even People magazine--any venue in which information is delivered--necessarily stage knowledge in a factual and linear way, privileging particular information above other information (theme and scope management), providing the visitor with carefully crafted intelligence understood by the majority of the audience to be sum total fact.

Michel Foucault, in his 1980 essay, "Power/Knowledge," speaks of the State creating and manifesting power by controlling the production of and access to knowledge. While formal museums and informal historical displays are not in gladiator–like combat with each other, the point can be made that local (capillary) knowledge legitimately augments knowledge as a whole and can challenge State–crafted margins of truth. Despite its informality, the low-history of the Hen House importantly redraws these margins of “proper” and “sanctioned” knowledge, touching people in ways that formality cannot.

The Hen House created an opportunity in which I was forced to craft my own set of critical questions that I may not have done at an exhibit where information is carefully constructed for efficient visitor consumption. The failure of the Hen House to explicitly speak to the hidden meanings and history of its objects was, in part, its success.

~ Anne Coogan-Gehr