Public History Final Project

History 318, Spring 2021

Scholars might mark the end of “colonial America” in 1776, when the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, or perhaps in 1783, the year the American Revolution came to a close with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  Today, however, colonial America is alive and well.  Along the eastern seaboard, one might purchase a ticket to experience “living history” at historical theme parks such as Colonial Williamsburg (in Virginia) and Old Sturbridge Village (in Massachusetts).  Across the country – from Paul Revere’s house in Boston to Jefferson’s Monticello outside Charlottesville to the many Spanish missions that dot the California coastline – one finds the preserved and curated histories of colonization, slavery, and revolution.  Such material sites are mirrored by the growing list of online initiatives seeking to inspire and educate.  Whether physical or digital, all of these venues stand as vivid reminders of our colonial past as they seek to generate awareness in the broader public.  In doing so, they simultaneously raise questions about the elements of our colonial past that have received less attention, waiting to be illuminated by later generations and future projects.

The goal of this assignment is for you to conceptualize a public history project for colonial North America.  All projects must focus on a historical subject related to our course material, but the specific subject is your choice.  Think creatively and expansively about your focus.  You might examine a famous subject and give it a new spin; you might take something or someone little known and bring that subject to the fore.  Your historical subject might be a well-known person (Pocahontas), place (Jamestown), event (the Revolution), or historical phenomenon (the Atlantic Slave Trade).  You might focus on gender norms in early America, a dramatic Middle Passage voyage, a specific slave revolt, European perceptions of indigenous peoples, the relationship between humans and the environment in New England, or the role that consumption played in generating political action in the eighteenth century.  These are only a few examples of the many possible topics you could pursue.  No matter what you choose, the important thing is that you pick a topic that (1) you find interesting and (2) you think is important for the broader public.

Perhaps the greatest challenge this assignment poses is one of translation: how might you take what you are learning in this course and translate it beyond the classroom?  While practitioners continue to differ on the precise definition of “public history,” they find common ground in the notion that, as Professor Kathleen Franz puts it, public history is work that is “public facing” (rather than work simply directed towards the academy or other historians).  How might you create a “public facing” project concerning the history of colonial North America?  How would you make this history gripping and pressing for an audience today?

Final Project Proposal (1 page double spaced, due April 23 by midnight PST through BBLearn)

In this proposal, you will want to do the following:

  • Briefly describe your historical subject
  • Articulate why you are interested in this subject and its potential importance to the public
  • Sketch out the form (the medium) your public history work will take, and why that form is best suited to illuminate the subject.  Possible forms include a museum exhibition, commemorative site, and popular or documentary film.

Final Project (due Monday, May 10 by midnight PST through BBLearn)

The final project will consist of a 5-7 page paper that offers an overview of your public history work and connects it to the course.  You will want to make sure you do the following:

  • Define public history, and describe how your project fits within that definition
  • Describe your historical subject
  • Give an overview of your public history work
  • Connect this work to the course material. 
    • This section should be minimum of 2 pages double spaced.  You should name specific authors and readings from the semester.
  • Argue for the form of the work: why does a film work best for subject x?  What is the value of an exhibition at a historical society for subject y? 


  • Times New Roman 12-point font, 1 inch margins
  • Submit papers in Word Docx
  • Cite sources by putting the author and/or title and page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence.
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