Department of History

Public History at UNCW

Public History

Both the present and the future are grounded in the past, which forms the basis for who we are as individuals, societies, and nations. This belief is what motivates public historians, who foster the public awareness of and engagement with history through their employment in institutions dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of historical resources.  Public historians are committed to supporting and guiding communities that use the past to develop insight into contemporary issues and challenges.

Students in UNCW's Public History Program receive a Master in Arts in History, with a concentration in public history. Through the program, our students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to begin careers in museums, historic sites, archives, and historic preservation agencies, and gain a foundation for their future career paths.  Our students have diverse opportunities to explore and learn the many aspects of public history practice, including collections care and management, museum education, historic site interpretation, exhibit design, historic preservation, museum administration, archives management, oral history, and digital history.  Much of this training is offered through highly-structured practica in the many local, community-oriented institutions with which we partner, under the joint supervision of faculty members and history professionals working in the field.  Project-oriented collaboration is also a key element in the program, designed to reflect the relationships that structure public historians’ work. 

The UNCW Public History Program is also dedicated to training our students in scholarly research and interpretation, which is central to the work of effective public historians.  Through courses dedicated to both reading and writing about the past, our students hone their abilities to communicate in a variety of ways, in diverse settings, and with multiple audiences, from children to advanced scholars.  As public historians, our students and faculty also share in the critical consideration of the opportunities and challenges of exploring the past with the public, both to reinforce and confront contemporary social, cultural and political realities. Through a careful balancing of classroom learning and field experience, our graduates are uniquely positioned to enter the profession as skilled, knowledgeable, and creative historians dedicated to using the past to improve the future.

If you'd like more information about the UNCW Public History Program, or would like to visit our campus, please contact Ken Shefsiek, the program's director, at


Public History Program Details


Kenneth Shefsiek, Program Director, Historic Preservation, Historic House Museums, Museum Administration, Memory and Commemoration
Jennifer Le Zotte, Material Culture, Oral History, Digital History
Nathan Crowe, Digital History
Monica Gisolfi, Environmental History, Southern History, Memory and Commemoration
Robert Hart, Environmental and Southern History
Jarrod Tanny, Jewish History


In 2017-2018, the UNCW History Department will launch a new graduate curriculum in public history, which consists of four basic components:

  1. History Coursework:  Students begin their program with a course in historiography, in which students are introduced to the theories, methodologies and perspectives of scholarly history and begin to learn the professional historian’s craft.  Students also select from a variety of readings colloquia and research seminars, in which they develop historical knowledge and research and communication skills.
  2. Public History Coursework:  In the first year of the program, students enroll in a series of courses designed to expose students to the role of history in society, culture and politics in both the past and present.  Students begin this exploration in the first semester through a course in historical memory and commemoration.  The curriculum also includes public history research seminars in the fall and spring, which include a public component, such as oral history or public presentations. 
  3. Public History Practica:  In the second year of the program, graduate students in the Public History program enroll in three, two-credit practica dedicated to the development of practical skills, which they complete directly in our many local institutions under the joint supervision of UNCW Public History faculty members and history professionals.  Each practicum is dedicated to the work within one public history sub-discipline, such as collections care and management, museum education, historic house museum interpretation, exhibit design, historic preservation, museum administration, and archives management.  In each practicum, students complete a minimum of 180 hours of work over the course of 10-12 weeks, according to defined syllabi crafted collaboratively by the faculty and professional mentors.  All students completing practica also meet regularly as a group with their faculty mentors to discuss their experiences and to provide each other with guidance and support.
  4. Capstone Project or Thesis:  In the final semester of study, public history students choose to complete either of two research-based projects, a capstone or thesis.  A capstone is an individual project completed in conjunction with a community partner that includes both historical research and writing, and the presentation of that research in another form, such as an educational module, an exhibit, or a public program.  A thesis is an extended research paper that focuses on a topic, issue or question relevant to the theory and practice of public history.


The region is home to a host of history museums, historic house museums, historic sites, archives, and preservation organizations, with which the Public History program regularly partners, particularly as sites for student practica. The program has also collaborated with these institutions to produce a variety of projects, including exhibits, historical research, education, public programs, and fundraising programs. Public history students are also active volunteers and part-time employees in many of these local institutions, where they develop valuable skills and build their resumes as public historians. The many public history professionals in these institutions, a number of whom are graduates of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, eagerly support the education and training of emerging professionals. They have consistently demonstrated their eagerness to share their experience in both formal and informal ways. The Program also collaborates with less-formal community groups in the preservation and interpretation of their varied histories.

To meet its teaching and outreach missions, the UNCW Public History Program also operates the Public History Laboratory. This 1,500-square foot facility allows students to practice skills in exhibit design and fabrication, oral history, collections care and management, web publication and film making. It includes a computer and graphics room equipped with the Adobe Create Suite, wide format printers, and custom mat-making equipment. The lab's mount making room allows for practice in custom artifact mounts, while its collections room houses over 300 objects in its teaching collection, managed with Past Perfect software. Its classroom doubles as a space for public meetings and guest speakers. Students in the Public History program also have opportunities to work in the Archives and Special Collections at UNCW.

Our community partners include:

The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science
Historic Wilmington Foundation
The Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts
New Hanover County Library, Archives and North Carolina Room
The Burgwin-Wright House,
National Society of Colonial Dames in North Carolina
Wrightsville Beach Museum
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
U.S.S. North Carolina Battleship
Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site
Moore's Creek National Battlefield