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Texas State establishes new Center for Texas Public History

By Ann Friou
University News Service
December 8, 2011

When the National Park Service needed help researching the history of a former Secret Service command outpost at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park at Stonewall, it turned to public history professors Lynn Denton and Dan Utley in the Department of History at Texas State University-San Marcos.

Under Denton and Utley’s guidance, graduate students in public history undertook the project, researching a wide variety of records to complete a detailed analysis of the nationally significant historic site. The students also recommended ways to interpret the building’s historic significance to park visitors.

“The students collected many stories from Secret Service agents and others who served at the LBJ Ranch during Johnson’s presidency,” said Utley. “The stories show LBJ’s personal side and his family’s interaction with the Secret Service. Now, the Park Service will be able to relate these stories to the public through that little Secret Service building near the ‘Texas White House.’”

Requests for help with historical research and interpretation come regularly to Texas State’s History Department, enough that Denton created a new research center, the Center for Texas Public History, to respond to the requests. Denton directs the center and Utley serves as the center's chief historian.

The center, to be staffed by faculty and students in the department’s graduate program in public history, will make its expertise in museum work, oral history, and cultural resource management available to government agencies, museums, historical commissions, community organizations and others that need help in researching and interpreting historical information for the public.

The Center for Texas Public History is the first such program in Texas to cover a broad base of needs.

“We can do the work for organizations, we can train them to do the work, or we can partner with them in some way,” explained Denton.

For example, she recently conducted a series of workshops on interpretive planning for the Gonzales Memorial Museum.

“Gonzales currently emphasizes the ‘Come and Take It’ cannon from the Texas Revolution, but the city has other historic and cultural resources that it could interpret,” Denton said. “In the workshops, we explored options for broadening the city’s public presentation of its resources by redesigning exhibits and education programs, by self-funding new exhibits, and by seeking grant money for them.”

“We can help in other ways,” said Utley. “If someone is putting together a museum exhibit, we can do all the research for the exhibit and narrow down the information to the key points the public should know.

“Communities often want to do oral history projects,” Utley said, “and we can help them design a plan so they can do the work themselves or we can actually go in and do the oral histories and transcribe them.”

“And when construction projects uncover cultural resources—cemeteries, log cabins or Indian sites, for example—we can work with entities such as Texas State’s own Center for Archaeological Studies to research and interpret the historical resources that may be impacted,” Denton said.

“We can also partner with organizations such as historical commissions that are operating on tight budgets and that could benefit from our help,” Denton said. “Such partnerships will benefit our students by giving them on-the-job experience doing real public history.

“There are people in every community preserving, interpreting, or writing some kind of history that gets out to the public,” Denton said. “If they aren’t trained historians, they may want a professional historian’s help in determining the historical value of a cultural resource and in deciding the best way to present the information to the public. That’s what we’re here to do.”

For more information about the services provided by the Center for Texas Public History, please contact the center’s director, Lynn Denton, at pd16@txstate.edu, (512) 245-2142.