Public History Twitter: A Case Study

Based on a brief and unscientific survey of Twitter use by several public history institutions, there appear to be two different levels of the platform’s use. The first and more basic employs Twitter as another outlet for marketing announcements that are also made elsewhere on the institution’s web presence (new exhibitions, programs and events, important historical dates pertaining to the museum’s subject matter). Institutions at this level may sometimes highlight items from their collections or feature short biographies of individuals connected to their topic, but in general their Twitter “voice” is not particularly distinctive, and their Twitter content doesn’t offer much that can’t be found on their other digital outlets. The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago is a good example of this level of use. Most of their content is announcements, fundraising appeals, and the occasional retweet of another cultural institution or event related to their mission. Since February is Black History Month, they have recently been featuring photos of notable African-Americans–but those tweets usually link to Wikipedia pages about the individuals, rather than to DuSable’s own content. It’s not that their Twitter use is out of keeping with their mission, which reads:

To promote understanding and inspire appreciation of the achievements, contributions, and experiences of African Americans through exhibits, programs, and activities that illustrate African and African American history, culture and art.

Featuring notable African-Americans certainly helps advance this mission. But it’s questionable how much this Twitter use does for the DuSable as an institution. Followers interested in learning more about Aprille E. Jackson (the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in mechanical engineering) or in Matthew Henson (a black Arctic explorer) are directed to Wikipedia or, rather than back to the DuSable where they may be inspired to explore the website or even plan a visit. Though clicking on the “Tweets & Replies” tab reveals that whoever runs the DuSable’s Twitter account does sometimes engage with followers who tweet questions or criticisms, in general the voice of the Twitter account is a fairly bland institutional one, little different from the tone of postings on the museum’s website.

A second and more successful level of Twitter engagement by public history institutions involves a well-developed voice and focus for the account that uses Twitter’s potential to go beyond content offered by the museum’s other digital outlets. The Twitter account of the National Museum of American History is an example of effective use of the platform. Most of the tweets follow a “Today in history” theme, which justifies frequent posts and makes them relevant to the casual viewer. These tweets link back to content from the museum’s blog, keeping viewers engaged with the institution’s official outlets. The NMAH’s Twitter account also makes use of its membership in the large Smithsonian network, featuring objects from other museums’ collections as well as its own. The operator(s) of the account make use of hashtags and jokes that demonstrate a familiarity with the conventions of Twitter and that make them stand out as savvy users of the platform. Finally, the Twitter account sometimes links to ongoing research projects, such as with this tweet about collecting at the Iowa Caucuses, which can get its audience involved in following these initiatives while also educating them about the ways in which history is an ongoing process:

When comparing these two institutions’ use of Twitter, it is very important to remember how any institution’s resources (or lack thereof) may affect its ability to use social media in an effective way. As a member of the Smithsonian network, the NMAH likely has more money, staff time, and expertise to devote to developing an effective Twitter feed and to creating or posting the web content that supports a good feed. Even larger museums like the DuSable may lack the resources that make this possible. They may have to make trade offs between investing in social media platforms that may turn out to be ephemeral and investing in their collections, research, programs, or other priorities.


Katherine Stubbs, “Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fictions”

Katherine Stubbs’s 2004 essay “Telegraphy’s Corporeal Fictions” uses the little-studied genre of “telegraphic fiction” to examine various cultural reactions to the introduction of telegraph technology in the late 19th century–and to shed light on similarities between that moment and our own. “Telegraphic fiction” encompasses stories written by male and female telegraph operators in the 1870s and 1880s. Though written about thirty years after the technology was first introduced, the stories, according to Stubbs, are illustrative of a moment of newness, when telegraph users were beginning to think of the technology in entirely new ways, including conceiving of a “virtual space”–removed in some fundamental way from reality–that people could occupy when talking on the wire.

A telegraphic novel, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, published in 1880 by Ella Cheever Thayer, addresses this theme. It tells the story of a young female operator named Nattie Rogers who falls in love with another operator, “C,” who turns out to be a young man named Clem who lives in the same boardinghouse as Nattie.


An illustration from Wired Love.

In order to court out of sight of their strict landlady, they set up a private telephone wire between their two rooms, allowing them to stay up late talking. While covert visits to one another’s rooms would be utterly improper in Victorian America, the novel implies that there is something different about the “virtual space” of the telegraph wire that changes the equation. For Thayer, the telegraph wire allows Nattie freedom from her female body, so policed and restricted by the society in which she lives.

Some of the other stories that Stubbs studies have different perspectives to offer on the effect of telegraphic technology on gender relations. She explains that because of a drive on the part of telegraph company Western Union to hire more female operators (they were thought to be more submissive and easier to for the company to control), many of the male authors of telegraphic fiction felt their jobs and masculinity to be threatened by a “crisis of feminization” (96). Thus, their stories featured promiscuous women operators who flirted with and misled men over the wire, or whose feminine vulnerability threatened to disrupt the operation of the technology entirely.

Stubbs argues that the telegraph raised many of the same questions about the human body and selfhood in relation to technology that users of computers and the Internet were contemplating in 2004. She points to a prominent narrative about the Internet as a virtual space in which minds could interact with each other, freed of prejudice based on the corporeal body’s color, size, or gender. That narrative, as Thayer’s novel and other stories reveal, is not new. However, Stubbs also argues that the discourse around telegraphic technology did something that the narratives around the Internet had not done in 2004: that is, interrogate the connections between the human body, the physical workings of the technology, and the virtual space that it could create. The Internet’s boosters in 2004, she argues, were too quick to accept an absolute division between “physical” and “virtual” that also served to conceal the economic realities underlying the new communications technology. While telegraph operators were expressing an awareness about the impact of economic factors on the technology they used, in 2004 few people were bringing the same critical approach to discussions about the Internet. In the twelve years since this article was written, the debate has become more realistic about the ability of the internet to eliminate prejudice. But Stubbs’s claim that more understanding of the economic realities of late capitalism is necessary for users of “new media” remains relevant.