Guide to Writing a Public History Thesis with a Public History Component

Nancy K. Berlage
August, 2021

Section 1: Public History Components

The thesis/article should incorporate a public history component. Types of components are categorized and described below, with accompanying examples.

The thesis should do at least one of the following:

  • Demonstrate good knowledge and use of a particular methodology, public history practice area, or topic inherent to public history.
  • Show evidence of knowledge of best practices as identified by methods course and/or professional organization.
  • Discuss (briefly) the methodology used or practice area drawn upon to accomplish the aim of the thesis. Discussion might include the importance, history, legitimacy, or purpose of the methodology. This discussion is typically situated in the introduction. Discussion can also occur in the chapter or section that uses the methodology.)

A: Component Option: Uses a Particular Methodology or Addresses a Public History Practice Area

The public history program offers methods and practice field courses that can provide a frame for the thesis. The methods and practice areas can shape the whole thesis or chapters and sections can focus on application of the method to the topic.

The entire thesis/article does not need to be grounded in the methodology. For example, a thesis might draw on material culture or oral history methods in only one chapter/section.

Suggested Methods & Practice Areas

  • Architectural History
  • Archives
  • Community Engagement Cultural Landscapes
  • Cultural Resource Management
  • Digital History
  • Heritage Tourism
  • Immediacy of Topic that has contemporary resonance and has potential for current impact Interpretation and Public Programming
  • Local and Community History Material Culture
  • Memory Studies Museum Practice Oral History Preservation
  • Public History Administration of Historical or non-profit entities
  • Diversity and Inclusion

B: Component Option: Illuminates the ways in which the public comes to understand historical information or interacts with the past

The thesis helps illuminate the ways in which a public comes to understand historical information or interacts with the past.

Examples:

  • Analysis of a park’s public programming on a particular topic and change over time.
  • Analysis of the development of a local history society and what it chose to include or exclude from the narratives it promoted.

C: Component Option: Application of research or begins to develop application of research

Keeping questions about interpretation and ideas about practical applications of thesis research at the forefront can help develop competency in practice areas. It can open doors to careers and professional contacts. And it can provide a set of skills and knowledge that can be listed on the resume.

Examples:

  • Makes recommendations (typically in the last chapter or section), on how to engage the public on the historical findings of the thesis. Or, how to improve an existing presentation, e.g., at a park, museum, or site, on the topic examined by the thesis.
  • Discusses specific suggestions for public outreach on the topic, perhaps through digital exhibit, museum, signage, community meetings, etc.
  • Prepares pop-up exhibit and describes the process in a chapter or section.
  • Develops suggestions for a preservation plan.
  • Suggestions for future public programming and interpretive practices.
  • Analyzes or develops a new interpretation of a landscape following appropriate methodology.
  • Writes a grant proposal related to thesis findings –as a chapter or appendix.
  • Writes text of an exhibit related to thesis findings—as a chapter.
  • Suggests archival or records management practices in creating a new physical or on-line collection related to the topic and discussed the methodology and problems for doing so in the practice area.

D: Component Option: Internship Continuation

The topic and approach can develop out of an internship or project with a constituency, stakeholder, or community beyond the academy. The student continues and expands the project on their own, or they work with the organization to develop a product—to the extent the chair advises.

Examples:

  • A student who worked at a National Battlefield writes a thesis on how the National Park Service has interpreted that battle, paying attention to change over time.
  • A student who helped collect oral histories for a site continues and elaborates the project in conducting, analyzing, curating additional oral histories.
  • A student who assisted with an exhibit on the history of education at a local museum writes a thesis on how museums nationwide or locally interpret the history of education and then gives suggestions for improvement.
  • A student who worked for a history museum in Austin writes about how the museum handled a controversy.
  • A student who interned on the preservation of an adobe building writes a history of how Portland cement came to replace lime plaster as an outer coating on adobe buildings in the 1930s.
  • A student who interned at a historic site conducts research and writes a comprehensive guide for new interpretations of subjects previously ignored by the site.
  • A student who worked at a national historic site that included a Civil War battlefield writes on the significance of women soldiers in the Civil War and suggests public interpretation and/or programming.
  • I student who interned at an archive writes a history of a topic based on an archival collection they processed.
  • A student who wrote a history of a site for the National Park Service turns one chapter— based on original research on a hitherto unknown part of that history—into an article.

Section II: Sample Theses and Approaches by Practice or Methods or Topic Area

Theses were completed at leading public history programs and incorporate a public history component. Abstracts and hyperlinks.

Memory

Military History and Cultural Landscape & CRM

Museums

Music and Application