Intro to Public History Undergraduate Assignments

When I took over our Intro to Public History class, I knew I wanted to create meaningful assignments. The purpose of the class is to introduce students to the foundations of the field. We explored the vast array of careers a public historian can choose. So my assignments had to introduce a variety of skills. In addition to weekly readings and discussions, assignments included:

  • Review of a public history venue
  • A required field trip
  • Group public history portfolio
    • Initial Proposal
    • Grant Application
    • Exhibit Proposal (digital or physical)
    • Community Event OR Educational Activity
    • Final Pitch & Portfolio Submission

Review of a public history venue

Before Week 12, each student is expected (on their own time) to visit at least two different local public history venues. These sites could include:

  • a museum (art, history, natural history, children’s, etc.)
  • an exhibit at a non-traditional location (like a university, business, organization, or—possibly—online)
  • a monument/memorial
  • a historic site (historic homes, battlefields, etc.)
  • an archive

Suggestions are also welcomed. I have to approve their locations in advance. This ensures a good fit for the assignment. Students are required to write a minimum 800-word paper comparing, contrasting, and critiquing the venue and the history presented at each location. They need consider these questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • Did the venue present the history accurately (to your knowledge)?
  • Did the venue omit anything that is important to understanding historical significance?
  • How well does the presentation engage the public and foster dialogue?
  • Did the presentation evoke an emotional response? If so, how?
  • What would you do differently if you were the curator of the exhibit, monument/memorial, or historic site?
  • Which site presented the most compelling history and why?

Public History Field Trip

This assignment varies every time the course is taught. An alternative assignment may be designed on a case-by-case basis if a student is unable to attend. One example from our Fall 2017 course:

Students attended the BMore Historic “Unconference.” Baltimore Heritage hosted the event at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.  The event is participant led. Hence the phrase “unconference.” Scholars, students, professionals, and volunteers gathered to discuss the state of the field. Attendees included those who care about public history, historic preservation, and cultural heritage in the Baltimore region. Students simply needed to attend and actively participate in the various discussions.

BMore Public History
Dr. McGraw always says organizing our public history students is like herding cats!
BMore Public History
Only took me four tries to get this one!
Public History
Kaitlyn, Anthony, & Alexandra listening intently.
Sean, Caroline, Karalyn, & Stephanie engaging with professionals in the field.
public history
Zane played time keeper for this session!


Group Public History Portfolio

I designed this assignment in five parts. Each component is due at various points in the semester. The project culminates in a final “pitch” or presentation. Students work together from conception to completion to create their own public history “venue.” They can propose a physical venue or a digital platform. And their options are wide open after consultation with me.

Part I: Initial Proposal

During this phase, students will begin conceptualization. They work together to develop the perfect new museum/historic site/organization/etc. for the local community. Students name their site and identify the appropriate audience. They also craft a mission statement and determine whether they should file for non-profit status. Lastly, they also develop a funding plan.

Proposal Guidelines:

Students were encouraged to use the article “Thinking about Starting a Museum?: A Discussion Guide and Workbook on Museums & Heritage Projects.” It can be found here.

Required Elements
  • Name of Organization
    • Choose a name that is fitting and concise. It should clearly convey the organization’s purpose.
  • Description/General Information
    • What is the organization all about? What do you plan to teach or present to the public?
    • Are there organizations like yours? If so, what makes yours different? (Think of this as like the start to your final “pitch!”)
  • Mission Statement
    • See the AAM resource on Mission Statements (here) and use ones you have found from other organizations to help you craft your own.
    • This statement will drive all the things your organization chooses to do in subsequent assignments.
  • Audience/Public Obligations
    • Who are you trying to reach? Why? Try to be as specific as possible without being exclusionary. It is a tricky balance!
    • It’s not feasible to say “everyone.” Be realistic.
  • 501(C)3 or Private?
    • Check out the link to the 501(C)3 process here.
    • Look at the AAM Starting a Museum Guide (here) under the section “Is a nonprofit museum the proper course for your vision” and the article “Understanding Non-Profit Status and Tax Exemption” for help deciding.
    • There is no right or wrong choice. You just have to explain why you decided as you did.
  • Fundraising/Donor/Sponsorship Plan
    • How will you fund your organization to start? How will you sustain the organization for the long term?
    • Will you seek grants? Help from local or federal governments? Will you seek individual donations? Corporate funding? Think broadly, but realistically.
    • Are there fundraising activities you might pursue as part of your mission?
    • Who are some potential donors or sponsors?
Optional Elements
  • Location/Size/Architecture
    • Will you locate your organization in a physical building? If so, where (geographically speaking)?
    • If you need physical space, how large? Will you try to use/rent/buy space in existing architectural structures or will you need to build a new building?
  • Governance/Staffing
    • Will you have a Board of Directors and/or a Board of Trustees?
    • Will you allow people to become members of your organization and have a say in how it operates?
    • How will you staff the organization? Volunteers? Interns? Paid positions.
  • Vision Statement
    • This is about the future. It lets you think long-term and elaborate on your mission statement and your organization’s goals/objectives.
  • Values Statement
    • These are your organization’s core beliefs. It allows you to explain the “why” of your mission statement.

Part II: Grant Application

Each group chooses one major granting agency that fits their initial proposal/venue. The group then completes the agency’s grant application to the best of their ability. Students are not expected to submit this to the actual granting agency. It is submitted only to the instructor as part of the portfolio. A list of suggested granting agencies is provided for students.

Part III: Exhibit Proposal

Groups decide whether to plan a physical or digital exhibit. During this phase, groups work together to determine a particular part of history relevant to their organization. They then create a proposal outlining said exhibit. While students do not actually create the exhibit itself, their plan should convey:

  • who will be involved
  • costs for construction/hosting
  • audience & potential controversies
  • objects/images to use
  • publicity
  • sample “labels” or “text”

Part IV: Community Event OR Educational Activity

In this portion of the assignment, the groups choose whether to propose a community-wide event or a particular educational activity. The group’s mission statement should guide the choice in event/activity. Taking the questions below into consideration, students craft a proposal for the event and marketing materials for it.

Option A (Community Event):

The event should have a catchy title, a targeted audience, and a purpose. Is the event educational? Will the event be an opportunity for activism? Is it a fundraiser? These are just a few options. Groups should outline:

  • who will be involved
  • whether the event is free/open to the public or has a ticket/is for members only
  • what the overhead costs for the event will be
    • Does the group need to rent space?
    • Does the group need to provide food?
Option B (Educational Activity):

The educational activity should also have a catchy title, a targeted audience, and a purpose. Who are you trying to educate (K-12; General Audience; Ages 50+)? Why? How do you plan to do so (hands-on activity; documentary viewing and discussion; conference)? What are the overhead costs?

Part V: Portfolio Submission & “Pitch”

Each group combines all of their materials into a single document. Requirements include:

  • an attractive cover page
  • a table of contents
  • page numbers
  • color images
  • Parts I-IV revised
  • use of a professional, aesthetic template for each “proposal” piece
  • contributor biographies for each student
The “Pitch”

During the Final Exam period, each group gives a 20-30 minute “pitch.” Each group prepares their pitch as if they were presenting to a diverse audience. They should consider that the audience could include:

  • local businesses (who might invest)
  • the community
  • politicians/civil servants (governor, mayor, police, etc.)
  • other public history professionals

Each presentation includes the four key pieces of the Project Portfolio. The presentation should engage the audience via visuals in the form of a PowerPoint—or similar—presentation. Visual elements could include, but are not limited to:

  • graphs
  • image mock-ups
  • key textual information
  • promotional materials

Students should keep in mind that the presentation should be able to engage people from different educational levels, cultural/ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. The actual audience can be made up of classmates, other university instructors and administrators, and possibly the outside public.

Project Examples from Fall 2017

Below are some screenshots from the final presentations. They include examples of the different project pieces.

Operation: Black Lives Matter Archival

The group planned a digital platform inspired by Denise Meringolo’s community archive project.

cover page public history
The “Venue”
public history
The Creators
public history
The Mission Statement
public history
Sample Budget
public history
Exhibit Region
public history
Community Event
public history
Promotional Poster for Community Event

Civic Baltimore

These students designed a “virtual museum.”

public history
The “Venue”
public history
The Mission Statement
public history
Public History
Social Media Plan
public history
Community Event


The Maryland Museum of Horse Racing

These students conceptualized a physical museum plan honoring Maryland’s history with horse racing.

public history
The “Venue”
public history
The Mission Statement
public history
Proposed Exhibits
public history
Fundraiser Idea
public history
Part II
public history
Part III


Maryland Revolutionary War Museum

This group also conceived of a physical museum. Their proposal centered on genealogy and Marylanders’ roles in the American Revolution.

public history
The “Venue”
public history
The Mission Statement
public history
Educational Activity
public history
Venue: Educational Activity
public history
Educational Activity
public history
Personalized: Educational Activity