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Public History Lab

Prof. Sarah McCartney's students at Colonial Williamsburg's Printing Office.

In May 1776, members of Virginia’s Fifth Convention met in Williamsburg and authorized Virginia’s delegates at the Continental Congress to introduce a motion to declare independence from Great Britain. This decision made Williamsburg and Virginia’s patriots central to the story of the American Revolution. In the 1920s, the Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin, Rector of Bruton Parish Church, approached John D. Rockefeller Jr. about financing a project to restore Williamsburg to its eighteenth-century appearance.

Today, nearly 250 years since the decisions and actions of 1776 and nearly 100 years since Goodwin and Rockefeller began to restore Virginia’s colonial capital, Colonial Williamsburg is the world’s largest living history museum with visitors from across the country and around the world. Colonial Williamsburg is an ideal laboratory for NIAHD’s study and analysis of the many ways that the public can interact with information about the American past because this museum includes historic structures and landscapes, research and preservation, museum collections and exhibits, first-person interpretation, hands-on experiences, and insight into the challenges of grappling with the complexities of American history.

NIAHD’s Big Questions:

What is history? Is it useful? How is it made available for use? What is the relationship between museums / historic sites and history? What are the roles of conflict, consensus, and celebration at museums and historic sites?

MEDIA — How does media affect and shape our knowledge of history?

MONEY — What role does commodification play in our perception of the authority and integrity of historical sources?

METHOD — What methodologies do public historians use to study and interpret history? How do scholars maintain rigorous methodology while engaging diverse audiences?