Putting a hashtag on history

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A few years ago I began following my favorite cultural and public history institutions on Twitter. I wanted to stay up-to-date with what events they were holding, what exhibits they were planning, and learn about free/discount days. However, I did not want to be inundated with emails that I would save for latter, but never actually read. Following these institutions on Twitter allows me to view their most recent updates at my leisure. However, Twitter can be used to semi successfully advance institutions missions.

The most common posts by museums are updates on upcoming events or live Tweeting current events, ‘This Day in History’ posts, ‘Did You Know’ posts, and photos of patrons enjoying the institution. However, social media is not a one-way conversation. The public can respond to institutions posts and initiate the dialogue themselves. This allows patrons to publicly communicate any ideas, compliments, or grievances. The use of this dialogue facilitated by social media helps many institutions fulfill some aspect their missions.

Education is part of nearly every public history institution’s mission. Through ‘This Day in History’ and ‘Did You Know’ posts institutions are able to facilitate education to thousands of people, many of who are unable to visit the museum. These posts also highlight aspects of the museum’s collection and might entice people to visit the museum or further research the topic of the post.

The mission statement of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s is “Commemorate, Educate, Inspire.” Further explained: “The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum collects, preserves, studies, and exhibits artifacts, archival materials, and works of art related to the history, culture, and science of aviation and spaceflight and the study of the universe. Its research and outreach activities serve all audiences, within and beyond its walls. The Museum commemorates the past and is committed to educating and inspiring people to foster appreciation for the importance of flight to humanity.”

Through the museums daily posts that briefly explain a piece of their collection or aviation history the museum is able to digitally facilitate education. The post only contains a small fact, but ideally it inspires people to research the topic further. The museum also commemorates important anniversaries and dates by creating relevant posts that honor a person, group, or event.

However, Twitter does have its limitations when serving public history institutions. With a limit of 140 characters it is difficult for an institution to communicate a substantive message or have a truly education post. Many people who communicate with the institution via Twitter will also have their posts left unanswered due to the volume of posts the institution receives. Twitter is a valuable tool when used in conjunction with other digital resources. A few institutions posted links to their blogs or websites that were able to convey more information on a topic than a Twitter post would have allowed. Some posts linked to Flickr accounts where you could view photos of a new exhibition or past event.

The more public history and cultural institutions embrace social media the better connected with the public they will be with the public. When used properly and in conjunction with other communication methods Twitter will be able to aid them fulfilling their missions. For now though Twitter’s most valuable use is conveying information and updates about the institution.

The physiognotrace, the selfie-stick of 1802

New media has altered our lives in countless ways. Technology affects nearly every aspect of our lives, how we work, how we play, how we communicate. It has also impacted how we represent ourselves socially and politically. Wendy Bellion in her article “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America” examines how a novelty mechanism located in a museum influenced peoples’ representations of themselves in 19th century America. She delves into the history and use of the physiognotrace, a machine that creates miniature profiles of peoples’ heads. You would sit down at the machine and use a stylus to trace the outline of your face. The stylus was connected to a piece of meal that would create indentions in the shape of your face on a small piece of paper. An artist would then cut the profiles out and add nuances the stylus could not pick up, such as hairstyles and bowties. Bellion analyzes this machine in the context of older forms of self-representation such as the self-portrait, shadow painting, and the physiotrace.

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Sketch of the physiognotrace

Bellion argues that many people believed these minimalist profiles were highly accurate representations of themselves. One of the reasons for this belief was that you created the profile yourself, a form of self-portrait. However, Bellion argues that these profiles were not as direct as people thought they were. Yes, a person would trace the outline of their own face, but it was truly the artists cutting out of the silhouettes that created the final product. Bellion compares this to the political representation of Jeffersonian America.

As the Federalists gained political power citizens worried their elected officials would not accurately or fairly represent them. People believed a politician who was geographically close to you, held similar beliefs, and even looked similar to you would directly represent you in the political process. Bellion successfully argues that people were mistaken about how directly represented they were by their physiognotrace profiles and their elected representatives. In reality, both forms of representation were not as direct as people presumed they were.

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Completed profiles

A modern day form of the physiognotrace is the selfie. We use it to represent ourselves and document specific dates and events, such as visiting a museum. But how accurate of a representation are slefies? They capture the moment they were taken, but how well do they embody the rest of the minute, hour, or day? We use countless technological methods of portraying ourselves. The amount of websites dedicated to this task is staggering. Facebook ,Snapchat, and LinkedIn are all platforms we use to represent ourselves, but each one is usually used to exhibit a different side of ourselves. How accurate or direct are these representations? How do the platforms themselves affect the representations?

Bellion conveys a lot of important information in the dense and archaically worded article, but she provokes even more vital questions about media, technology and self-representation.