TEMSIG History of Technology, Museums, and Public History Special Interest Group

Minutes of TEMSIG Sunday Roundtable Meeting

SHOT--Pittsburgh, October 18, 2009


The group listed above met Sunday morning for a roundtable discussion titled "Public Historians of Technology: A Cross-Discipline Dialog," moderated by Allison Marsh and Eric Nystrom.

To frame the discussion, three questions were posed before meeting:

Marsh opened the meeting by noting the informal "changing of the guard" at TEMSIG, which consisted primarily of Maggie Dennis (Smithsonian -- Lemelson) handing the mailing list to Marsh. Traditionally, TEMSIG had been content to get together once a year at SHOT for lunch or an evening social hour. Bedi noted the history of TEMSIG leadership: Steve Lubar, then Bedi, then Dennis, now Marsh.

Marsh noted that TEMSIG had a small and productive lunch the previous day at SHOT. Consensus at the lunch (see lunch minutes) was that there was a desire to perhaps do a little more with the group, potentially including collaboration and broadening the focus to include material culture and digital technology.

The group then turned its attention to wide-ranging discussion, based on the three questions listed above, but frequently moving beyond them.

We began with a discussion about the changing state of curatorship in museums. Fewer PhDs know how to handle objects, young generations of curators are not being trained. There is a clear difference between the "scholarly" training of PhDs and what is required of them in museums. Knowledge and passion are the most important; people with training in other fields or non-PhD can serve museums effectively as curators.

The discussion shifted to engage the evolving state of training for public historians in the academy. Some programs are looking to move Public History work into PhD programs, so students will have something to "fall back on" if they can't find a "real" (i.e. academic) job. But such attitudes may produce less effective public historians, since their hearts aren't in the job. What can be done to train better public historians in the academy? Internships can make a big difference. Group members agreed that it would be beneficial to swap sample syllabi, readings, etc. in order to have a common base for training. One way would be to have grad students read the classics of material culture and the history of technology, then express their understanding through museum work assignments. Some of the great classic History of Technology courses worked that way, for example the Basalla/Ferguson course "Things in History."

We then moved to a discussion over questions of who, precisely, is doing what parts of education in museums. For example, "education officers" in British museums do the interaction with the public, which creates a gap between those who do the studies and those who convey those studies to the public. Teachers themselves (K-12) are generally quite enthusiastic about museums, but have problems because everything is now standards-driven and individual teachers need to comply, resulting in less flexibility. The Henry Ford is set up so that curators work closely with their education staff in daily ongoin collaboration. At the Smithsonian, by contrast, there is a more formalized relationship, such that any exhibit team involves both a curator and an educator. In small museums, this is often different, and sometimes help is from students or volunteers with no formal training.

From there, the discussion moved to questions about what Public History actually is, and what sorts of things are taught in Public History programs. For some members of the group, this is in flux, but there seems to be a general understanding of the term as encompassing "everything else" outside of traditional classrooms and traditional academic training.

This discussion then turned toward questions of artifacts, museums, and historians of technology. Historians of technology are well-suited to thinking of artifacts in historical contexts, and museums are where the artifacts are. But there were some concerns about how some museums are perhaps moving away from artifacts, driven both by the cost and expertise needed to deal with them and looking toward the greater access of digital audiences. Some museums see the opposite -- the desire of audiences to see the "real thing" -- but the overall trend seems clear. In part it requires practical skills to care for and interpret objects, but there are worries that the "care for" is becoming increasingly separate from "interpret" -- i.e. training in museum studies (collections management) vs. historical interpretation (especially history of technology). This is also a question about what the students themselves want to learn -- many of them are practically-oriented and less concerned about more abstract skills. An additional factor is the willingness of academics to teach these students and these skills.

The discussion then continued to question the role of the History of Technology as a discipline, and SHOT in particular, in possibly bridging this gap between practice and theory. Members agreed that the history of technology, due to its comfort with "things" as evidence, is well suited to provide a more intellectual approach that still values objects.

The question then turned to more practical matters of outreach. Could TEMSIG or SHOT help? Some interesting suggestions were proposed, including outreaching to K-12 teachers at SHOT meetings, holding the SHOT plenary at a museum, and having TEMSIG sponsor a session or two at SHOT to engage with issues of interest. Further venues for outreach were discussed, including National History Day. There was some significant enthusiasm for outreach, and Allison Marsh, Bob Casey, and Bruce Hevly agreed to discuss it further in anticipation of SHOT-Tacoma. The group was also interested in the outreach activites of the BSHS, of which Sabine Clark was a representative, and she agreed to provide additional information to Marsh to share with the group.

The discussion then tackled the question of internships. The consensus among museum representatives was that interns can be very rewarding, but can also be difficult to supervise. Ideally interns have a good project to work on and exist in a supportive framework, both on the part of the university and the museum. As Joyce Bedi put it, "interns are not a gift." The ongoing intern program of Smith College, who places them at the Smithsonian, was held up as a shining example. Smith students have pre-internship training, a weekly seminar while in Washington, a regular relationship with the Institution, and close academic oversight from the College. Supervisors at the museum meet with the Smith professors. Plus, Smith pays the SI. Discussion ensued, and it was agreed that not all elements of the Smith model would be easy to reproduce, especially with more limited funding. The cost-consciousness of many Public History students was noted, which discourages them from taking internships, particularly outside the area they live. Joyce Bedi proposed thinking about a SHOT-granted internship stipend award, for students interested in museums and technology, and the idea met with enthusiasm and encouragement of further action on that point.

Our time ran out, and the last question concerned what was next for TEMSIG. It was generally agreed that this had been an interesting and productive session. There was general consensus on moving the meeting to a cocktail hour next time, and on continuing the work of TEMSIG, though with an eye toward a broader understanding of its work as encompassing Public History more generally, not only Technology and Museums.

We agreed to try to act on the following items before Tacoma:

Respectfully submitted,

Eric Nystrom
March 8, 2010

[Posted to TEMSIG list March 20, 2010]