Public History Site Visit

Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA

On Friday, October 30, the class will visit the Massachusetts Historical Society, one of the oldest such organizations in the United States. Founded in 1791, MHS now houses a nationally recognized research library with collections ranging from the colonial era to today, editorial projects such as the Papers of the Adams Family, and exhibits of their materials open to the public. During our visit, we will be meeting with library and exhibitions staff to discuss the work that they do and to examine some items from the collection. We will also have an opportunity to view the Society’s current exhibit, Terra Firma: The Beginnings of the MHS Map Collection.

As with the Stamp Act assignment, the purpose of this trip is to consider how academic historians, public historians, museum staff, and others interpret the past for public consumption. Your assignment is to write a 1,000-word paper in which you compare the experience of using the Society’s online exhibits with that of being present with the physical artifacts themselves. To prepare for the visit, you should therefore spend some time with the MHS website browsing its collections. In particular, you should examine its teaching site devoted to the Revolution, The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776, and the Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr.

The paper should develop an argument that addresses how the narrative about the American Revolution created by MHS through both its online and in-person exhibits and materials compares to our study of the Revolution in class. As you write, think about how someone not engaged in college-level academic study of the American Revolution—including both the general public and K-12 students—would encounter these artifacts as part of a larger narrative about the American Revolution. You should also consider also the following questions:

  • How do the artifacts offer additional context for class readings/discussions?
  • In what ways do the artifacts alter the narrative we have created in class?
  • How does the MHS interpretation of these artifacts differ from the classroom discussion? Why?
  • What are the differences between viewing a document online versus in-person? How do these differences matter for understanding the American Revolution?

Keep in mind that you cannot possibly deal with the entire Revolution in 1,000 words. Be selective about your examples and aim for a coherent argument rather than being comprehensive in your chronological or thematic discussion.

Technical Requirements

  • The paper should be approximately 1,000 words (900-1,100 will be acceptable; a picture will not suffice).
  • You must reference at least three artifacts from the visit to MHS.
  • You must reference at least three artifacts from the online exhibit.
  • You should cite at least two syllabus readings and two class lectures or discussions.
  • You should use Chicago-style citations for your footnotes. After the visit, I will post/distribute a catalog of the artifacts we viewed with full citation information.
  • Submit the paper via by 10:30am on Tuesday, November 10. Use the following formula for your file name: “Lastname Public History.docx”
  • Any late papers will be docked 5 points per day beginning at that time. No papers will be accepted after 10:30 am on Tuesday, November 17.

Alternate Sites

For those who cannot make the October 30 trip, here is the list of alternate sites related to the American Revolution. If you have another site you would like to visit, please contact Dr. Adelman.

(Asterisks indicate sites with free admission.)
* Boston Public Library
Old South Meeting House
* Massachusetts Historical Society (public exhibits)
Paul Revere House
Bostonian Society
* Minute Man National Historical Park
* Adams National Historical Park
Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum