‘History on your phone’: Students take to Twitter to share Zoo history

In 1919, Sultana the polar bear gave birth to a cub named Zero and sparked a revolution.

Until that point, zoos had been more concerned with entertaining the public than they were with the health and safety of the animals on display. Sultana herself lived in Milwaukee’s Washington Park Zoo and was repeatedly bred over her lifetime, giving birth to 13 cubs.

But Zero was special – he was the first ever polar bear cub born in a zoo in North America to survive to adulthood. His success inspired zoos to move away from entertainment and begin to focus more on education and conservation, a mission that continues today.

Obviously, thought UWM history professor Amanda Seligman, that moment in Milwaukee history belonged on Twitter.

History 450

Seligman teaches History 450, a class exploring Milwaukee’s past. The curriculum covers the land’s Indigenous people, the birth of the city, its influx of immigrants, its Socialist mayors, and more.

The course culminates in a Twitter re-enactment of a historical event in the city, hosted in partnership with Milwaukee Public Museum educator Jaclyn Kelly, herself a UWM history alumna. Each year, Seligman chooses a significant event and asks her students to research the historical figures that played a role in its occurrence. Based on their findings, they create personas for each, make Twitter handles, and send out Tweets as if their historical figure had access to social media.

This year’s cast of historical characters included Edward Bean, the first director of the Washington Park Zoo; Milwaukee Socialist mayor Dan Hoan; fictional children visiting the zoo; and the polar bear mother, Sultana, among others.

If the birth of the polar bear cub Zero captured Milwaukee’s hearts back in 1919, it certainly captured Seligman’s students’ interest in 2021. But the real trick to picking a good historical event for a reenactment, she said, is finding one that stretches.

“They illuminate both the moment that they’re in, and how Milwaukee is positioned nationally and globally,” she said. “Even things that are small or obscure are connected to global events.”

In other words, the birth of Zero was about more than a polar bear cub. To lend authenticity to their characters, the students studied the end of World War I, the 1918 pandemic, socialist governance, and even the history of school field trips.

“All of these things connected to Zero in a big spiderweb,” said undergraduate teaching assistant Lillian Pachner.

History in public

Seligman doesn’t just stop at a Twitter reenactment, however. Students complete two additional projects in the class – one where they analyze a primary historical source, like an original newspaper article or photograph, and another where they curate a poster presentation around that primary source.

Then, they take work to the public. Seligman had her class give their talks both at the Milwaukee County Zoo and at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

“The work they’re doing in terms of making presentations, translating primary sources … is directly applicable to careers beyond UWM. I see it as having real professional development for our students,” Seligman said.

Pachner got a little more development than most. She took History 450 in 2020, when the Twitter reenactment centered around Milwaukee’s first weather forecast, delivered by Increase Lapham.

Pachner is self-admitted history nerd, so she was delighted when Seligman approached her after last year’s class with a new assignment: Create a bibliography of primary sources from the UWM Archives so that students in the 2021 class had documents with which to conduct their research. Pachner spent the summer wading through old Milwaukee Zoological Society records, newspaper clippings, and photographs to find a host of primary sources. She was helped along with a UWM SURF award (Support for Undergraduate Research Fellows).

“I had never done anything like that,” Pachner reflected. “I can’t believe I get to do this. It’s the coolest thing ever. I’m only 21 and I don’t have my degree, but I get to do this research with an amazing, respected professor.”

History via Twitter

Running a historical figure’s Twitter account is more difficult than it sounds.

“It was really hard taking all of these little nuggets of history and turning them into something our characters would say,” Nicholas Baumgart reflected.

He took Seligman’s class this fall and played two characters during the reenactment: Frederick Law Olmsted, a landscape architect who designed parks and recreation areas across the country and in Milwaukee, and Edward Bean.

“He’s credited for building the zoo up to what it is today,” Baumgart noted.

Bean was the first to notice the birth of Zero; Baumgart says that while not much was known about polar bear gestation and birth, Bean did know a bit about bears. He reportedly threw some hay into Sultana’s enclosure and left the pair alone for four months, allowing Zero to grow strong and healthy before introducing him to the Milwaukee public.

Baumgart found other interesting mentions of Bean as well, including in the newspaper article he used to give his presentations at the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Public Museum. The clipping reported on a leopard escaping its enclosure at the zoo 10 years after the fact.

When it came time to write his Tweets, “I chose Edward Bean to be kind of a stereotypical frat boy,” Baumgart laughed. “It made it not-so-serious.”

For the reenactment, the students met in a large, windowed room at Milwaukee Public Museum. They had drafted 20 Tweets each for their characters and a narrator account, and wrote a script so everyone would know which Tweet to send in what order to build the narrative. The reenactment took about three hours.

“We had done such hard work that (when we finished) it felt like the end of a staged play,” Pachner said.

The Twitter reenactment is a unique way to bring a little slice of Milwaukee history to the world, she added. “It’s the perfect way to make history so accessible. … It’s on your phone!”

View UWM History 450’s Twitter reenactment of the “Birth of Zero” by searching the hashtag #MKEZero.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science