Suggested topics for postgraduate theses in History

History staff members offer a range of topics that Master of Arts and PhD students may want to pursue.

Catherine Abou-Nemeh

European history, 1500–1750

I am available to supervise a range of topics in the history of early modern Europe, early modern sciences, technology, and medicine, from around 1500 to 1750. I am open to discussing topics with students and welcome student use of primary sources in foreign languages, especially in Dutch, French, Italian, Polish, Spanish, German, and Latin.

Postgraduate students at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington have access to a wide variety of primary sources and documents. The Alexander Turnbull Library holds a rare books collection rich in materials on Europe’s early sciences. Collection highlights include publications of the Royal Society of London, including Robert Hooke’s pioneering work on microscopy, Micrographia, and his Posthumous Works; John Flamsteed's celestial atlas; and Book Three of Isaac Newton's Principia.

The University's Library has a number of modern scholarly editions of early modern texts. These include works by Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, John Evelyn, John Aubrey, Margaret Cavendish, and Richard Bentley, among others. The Library also houses all issues of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

Online databases include Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Burney Collection of Seventeenth-Eighteenth Century Newspapers. Digital projects—such as Mapping the Republic of Letters, Newton Project, and Perdita Manuscripts of Women Writers, 1500–1700—offer access to manuscript and printed sources.

Potential topics

History of medicine, 1500–1750

  • Early studies of mental health and medicine, or ‘diseases of the soul’
  • Social responses to animal vivisections and experimentation
  • Medicine, domestic science and women's recipe books
  • Representations of quack doctors in the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Comparison of seventeenth and eighteenth century botanical collections

History of science, 1500–1750

  • Controversies, priority disputes, and public debates in natural philosophy
  • Newtonian sciences and their many afterlives
  • The Royal Society of London in satires
  • Studies of earthquakes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
  • Evolving practices of observation and experiment

Early modern Europe, 1500–1750

  • The early modern diplomat's tradecraft
  • Aspects of urbanisation, pollution, and politics
  • Seventeenth-century pedagogy and education reforms
  • The art of physiognomy and ‘books of complexions’ in the 16th century
  • Cultural responses to the introduction of new spices and substances

See Catherine Abou-Nemeh’s profile page.

Steve Behrendt

British Atlantic maritime history, 1650–1850

Topics concerning British Atlantic maritime history in the period 1650–1850, based on analysis of sources contained in online book collections (such as Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Making of the Modern World), rare books and microfilms held at the Alexander Turnbull Library, ship registers, newspapers, trade lists, colonial records, ships’ muster rolls and parliamentary papers from the Houses of Commons and Lords.

Potential topics

  • Particular maritime businesses (for example, the slave trade, the sugar trade, or whaling)
  • Interconnections between maritime commerce and the Navy
  • Medical history, or the development of ports in the Atlantic world.

The University holds the largest collection of slave trade-related materials in Australasia.

See Steve Behrendt’s profile page.

Kate Hunter

Aspects of social and cultural history of World War I

There are a great many photographs, official records, and personal papers of soldiers, nurses, and families affected by war in Wellington repositories that could form the basis of a postgraduate thesis. Theoretical considerations and frameworks could include:

  • Manliness, femininity, ideas/representation of the body during World War I
  • Remembrance and commemoration, educating children about the war during the interwar years
  • Changing attitudes around death and dying, grieving, and bereavement
  • The experience of and changes in rural communities during the war, especially the manifestations of modernity.

Potential topics

  • A comparison of Kai Tiaki (journal of NZ nursing) and the Gazette of the British First-Aid Nursing Yeomanry (available through 'Women, Work and Society, 1914–18' database held at the Library) and/or the Royal Nursing Journal (UK) now fully digitised
  • A comparison of British, New Zealand, and Australian women’s adventure writings about their war experiences as published in women’s magazines, journals, and school journals
  • Using the Dorothy Neal White collection of children's literature (at National Library), examining aspects of juvenile fiction before and after the war; perhaps in combination with the children's columns/pages in various newspapers
  • An exploration of domestic sewing, and the role of sewing in providing ‘comfort’ to soldiers, especially to wounded soldiers (and/or pre-war sewing for families if you wish). Whole hospitals were fitted out with bed linen and pyjamas for patients through the efforts of sewing women
  • Aspects of culinary history. Cooking, butchery and dressing, domestic service, home economics education, kitchen design, cookbooks as sources, account books, diaries, advice columns, and so on
  • Aspects of environmental and gardening history and other transformations of the landscape through burning, ploughing and planting (using magazines and gardening literature eg New Zealand Gardener which began in 1947 or Brett's Colonists' Guide, farming newspapers, diaries, personal papers, photographs: entering 'gardening' as a subject in Tapuhi reveals a great number of 19th and 20th century records from gardening diaries, clippings and scrap-books to ledgers from seed companies—all rich source material)
  • Other topics in this area that deserve more scholarly attention include fishing (both commercial and recreational, sea or freshwater) in New Zealand and hunting. A comparison of conservation and wildlife policies of settler colonies, particularly Canada and New Zealand, also New Zealand hunters’ and fishers’ visits to other countries such as Africa, Australia and India, all lend themselves to rich thesis topics.

See Kate Hunter’s profile page.

Dolores Janiewski

Potential topics—19th century

  • Debate over slavery, 1830–1865
  • the Media and Literary construction of ‘race’ in US History, 1830s–1900s
  • US Civil War. soldiers’ experience, the home front, gender and civil war, slavery and civil war racial violence, 1865–1900
  • lynching; Ku Klux Klan; disfranchisement and segregation, 1890–1900
  • Women’s rights and woman suffrage, 1848–1920
  • US Empire and the Pacific, 1820–1900, Hawaii, Samoa; frontier conflicts
  • Wounded Knee and the end of the ‘Indian Wars’, 1880s–1890s
  • Comparisons between New Zealand and the US West.

Potential topics—20th century

  • The Better America Federation and anti-Communism in the 1920s US
  • Cold War US culture, foreign policy; involvement in Vietnam
  • SEATO treaty, 1954–1975
  • Détente and its enemies; Civil Rights movement, 1954–1965
  • Second wave feminism, 1967–1982
  • The religious right as transnational network, 1940–2007
  • Conservative movements in US History, 1934–2005
  • Conservatism and US Foreign Policy, 1934–2004
  • Gender and US literature, 1830–1900
  • Race and US literature, 1830–1900
  • Advertising and US culture, 1870–1940
  • Political cartoons and US politics, 1830–1870s
  • Sexuality and US politics, 1830–1870s
  • The debate over empire and anti-imperialism in the US, 1870–2007
  • Religious Right: New Zealand–US connections, 1970s–2005
  • Freedom Summer, 1964
  • The US–New Zealand peace and anti-nuclear movements.

See Dolores Janiewski’s profile page.

Charlotte Macdonald

I am available to supervise in a range of topics in New Zealand History, histories of empire and colony in the 19th century, and histories of gender and women.

Potential topics

  • Aspects of the 19th-century garrison world. Looking beyond the military to the wider ambit of garrison life across the British Empire. Topics might include disease, consumption, trade, surgeons, garrison towns, garrison masculinity, sites and memories, and much more.
  • Domestic service and colonial labour. Exploring the value of labour in settler colonies. The enigma of the New Zealand story.
  • 20th-century protest and dissent. The Alexander Turnbull Library contains a rich Ephemera collection of posters, pamphlets, manifestoes.
  • Print culture: this is a rich and growing area linking writing and reading with politics and culture. There are many angles to explore in the New Zealand setting where reading and writing has been at the centre of national life for over 200 years.
  • Ngā Taonga Archives of Film, Sound, and Television offers many options for projects that take up the life of these powerful media as histories and in history. Ngā Taonga is located in Wellington.
  • An aspect of the history of radio in New Zealand focusing on broadcaster–audience relations, sports broadcasting, or the history of radio 'soap' series. Existing cultural histories of radio in Australia and the US alongside Patrick Day's two-volume history of broadcasting in New Zealand provide a foundation in secondary sources.
  • The sporting press in New Zealand and Australia. Little work has been done on the extensive sporting press which developed in Australasia from the 1880s. Titles ranged widely, often combining gentlemen's illustrated magazines with sporting reports, licensed victuallers' papers with sporting titles, racing, and other sporting coverage. As the daily press took up sports reporting the weekly press responded with new and different titles. Through the 20th century, sporting coverage continued to be an innovative area for publication, with motoring and radio-related titles appearing in the 1920s and lavish photographic weeklies enjoying popularity in the post-World War II years. Another angle would be to look at the sporting pages within the major daily and weekly newspapers, charting their place within the commercial and political world of print culture. Rich sources exist for a variety of thesis projects at MA or PhD level.
  • Drinking and playing. A study examining the long relationship between alcohol and competitive and recreational sport. To what extent has New Zealand's sporting culture relied on alcohol? This could be framed around a particular time period, event, sporting activity, or set of recreational institutions (pubs as well as playing fields).
  • Lost Cases. Horse stealing, 'unnatural offences', petty theft, libel, murder, concealment of birth, and other matters of dispute: a study using the sources identified in the 'Lost Cases' database of legal cases heard in New Zealand's Supreme Court, 1842–1883 (there are a number of possible angles and areas of focus though the broad field is one of the conjunction of law and history). See New Zealand's Lost Cases as a starting point.
  • 19th-century negotiator, politician, and administrator Donald McLean (1820–1877) left a huge quantity of correspondence and papers, now a major collection in the Alexander Turnbull Library's manuscript collection. These have been digitised, a portion transcribed, and those written in Māori translated. A thesis would draw on a selection of these documents to investigate an aspect of New Zealand's history from the 1840s to the 1870s. See also the entry on McLean in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB on and Ray Fargher, The best man who ever served the Crown? A life of Donald McLean, Wellington, 2007.

See Charlotte Macdonald’s profile page.

Alexander Maxwell

Potential topics

The Habsburg, Romanov, Soviet, and Ottoman empires

East European Empires offer many interesting research topics, including ethnic tensions in a multi-ethnic state, the modernisation of peasant societies, struggles for democratisation or socialism, or the question of dynastic loyalties.

Students could address such questions either from the perspective of the imperial courts in Istanbul, Vienna, Moscow, or St Petersburg, or from the perspective of a specific national community: Russian, German, Turkish, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek, Armenian, and so on.

Extensive sources are available online for several of these topics. While I am particularly skilled in Slovak, Hungarian, and Macedonian history, I am interested in supervising topics anywhere in Eastern Europe.

Theories of nationalism

The study of nationalism poses many theoretical problems, and can be approached from many different angles. Nationalism has an intellectual history, but also a social and organisational history.

Students may wish to study the spread of nationalist feeling, the relationship of patriotic intelligentsias to the people they claim to lead, the relationship between national ideology and patriotic action, or the social and gender composition of national movements.

I have special expertise in the relationship between nationalism and linguistic loyalties, corporeal practices, consumption habits, and clothing, but am willing to supervise topics investigating other aspects of nationalism.

Social and gender history during the long 19th century

Some of the most exciting historical research occurs in the field of gender studies. My research on nationalism and clothing, as well as nationalised sexuality, make me eager to work with students looking at the relationship between gender identities and other social variables.

The University's Library and the Turnbull Library together have rich resources on Anglophone social history. Sources include the Ladies' Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance (first published in 1832), the Child's Own Magazine (1832–1871), Leisure Hour (1852–1905), Boy's Own Paper (1876–1967), Gentlewoman (1898–1920), and the Girls' Empire: An annual volume for English-speaking girls (1902–04) all offer rich pickings for political analyses of gender and society.

Eastern Europe during and after Communism

The Soviet Union and its empire in Eastern Europe attracted considerable attention during the Cold War, but the collapse of Communism has created a new discipline of 'transition studies'. Students may wish to examine political or social aspects of the transition, ethnic or ideological tensions in the newly independent states, or cultural developments in this vibrant and exiting region of the world. Post-Communist states have been very active in creating online repositories and archives, and considerable resources are also available in English.

East European diasporas in New Zealand

Students interested in the relationship between immigrant communities and the 'old country' may wish to examine East European ethnicities. Turnbull library has copies of the Czechoslovak émigré newspaper Střípky Čriepky, the Polish émigré papers Solidarność na Antypodach (1985) and Krzyż południa (1990) and the Hungarian papers Ujzélandi Magyar híradó (started in 1958) and Magyar szó (1990).

A student taking an interest in one of these communities could even bypass the language barrier through the techniques of oral history, and Krzyż południa has also published articles in English. While my own research primarily concerns European history, the resources of the Antipodean East European Study Group might benefit students interested in this region.

See Alexander Maxwell’s profile page.

Jim McAloon

Potential topics in New Zealand history

  • New Zealand regional history, especially 19th century
  • Histories of business in New Zealand (including farming)
  • Labour history, including histories of unions, of work, and of workplace cultures
  • Political history, including policy issues, parliamentarians and political parties, and also extra-parliamentary political movements. Comparative approaches are welcomed
  • Migration from Britain and Ireland to New Zealand, particularly with a regional focus.

See Jim McAloon’s profile page.

Adrian Muckle

Potential topics

19th-century travel (and travellers’ accounts) in the Pacific

The Turnbull Library has extensive holdings.

Pacific Islands’ history post-1942/Aspects of decolonisation in the Pacific

This is emerging as an important area of research. Possible topics include: Wartime thinking about future political statuses; regionalism; social and political developments in the post-war era (the 1940s to 1960s) and prior to independence. Quite a lot of research has been done about the political and legal dimensions of decolonisation, but not so much has been done about the social, cultural, and economic dimensions of this process.

New Zealand–Pacific relations and regionalism

Possible topics include: New Zealand's relations with particular Pacific Island territories and states; New Zealand and the development Pacific regionalism post-1945; New Zealand's involvement in the Institute of Pacific Relations (See Beaglehole Room archives re IPR and NZIIA); Important connections are also provided by trade/labour union connections; media, health organisations, and churches.

The Pacific war

This is an area of growing public interest. There is work that could be done on the experiences of New Zealanders in the Pacific during World War II; and the literature (and other media) associated with the war in the Pacific.

New Caledonia and French Polynesia

Students with French language skills may be interested in topics relating to New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Possible sources/areas of study include: Catholic mission records up to c1956 (for example, missionary responses to World War I or World War II in New Caledonia and the development of particular mission stations); New Caledonian historiography (for example, a study of the Bulletin de la Société d'Études Historiques de la Nouvelle-Calédonie); history and literature (depending on published sources available at the Turnbull Library); relations between New Zealand and New Caledonia or French Polynesia (for example, during the 1980s); New Zealand's response to the Kanak independence movement.


There is a need for critical (and comparative) historiographies of Pacific island nations (for example, Samoa, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia).

Other topics

War histories

Two kinds of study might be thought of under this heading—studies of official war histories taking advantage of the recent digitisation of the complete Official History of New Zealand in World War II series; studies of either WWI or WWII personal letters and diaries given the large collection at the ATL, and the possibility of setting these alongside the growing body of oral history on WWII (and some of WWI).

Historical geography

The geography of the 1913 strike in Wellington—where did activity take place, was it geographically specific, or dispersed? 'When we looked at the Waihi strike for the atlas, we found that strikers and strikebreakers were completely mixed up in terms of where they lived. The strikebreakers were not 'outsiders'. Wellington would be different of course—but how much?' Malcolm McKinnon, editor, New Zealand Historical Atlas, 1997.

Histories of suburbs

There is a good secondary literature on suburbanisation in the library. It could be applied to any Wellington suburb/cluster of streets, in a particular period. Adrian Humphris's geography MA on Kilbirnie suggests some ways of approaching it. (He is currently working as an archivist at WCC archives.)


History of milkbars, cinemas, department stores.

See Adrian Muckle’s profile page.

Collections as a starting point for topics

The University Library is acquiring additional collections of direct value to postgraduate research in History. See, for example:

  • British Parliamentary Papers on line
  • Early English Books on line (EEBO)
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)
  • Women, War and Society, 1914–1918, from collections of the Imperial War Museum, London.
  • Empire On-Line
  • Defining Gender
  • Recent purchases of Adam Matthew microfilms
  • Alexander Turnbull Library. The Turnbull library holds copies of several major collections of microfilmed materials relating to the Pacific, notably the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau (PMB) microfilm series. PMB indexes are available at the Victoria University of Wellington Library and online.

The number of digital collections is also growing. Recently the following have become available:

The National Register of Archives and Manuscripts (NRAM) provide a listing of archives and manuscripts in many of the major New Zealand research repositories.

The following are all to be found in the JC Beaglehole Room Special Collection, Victoria University of Wellington Library:

  • Springbok Tour archives. The 20-year restriction ended in 2001, so there are now only Privacy Act implications to using this material. Tapes would need to be copied and some might need restoration, but there are transcripts. The papers of Lindsay Wright are related.
  • Wellington Investment and Trustee Association papers 1886–1968. This is an excellent source. It is long-running and has a name index to the Investors' Ledger. The papers were literally rescued from going to the tip. One researcher has used them so far.
  • Kelburne and Karori Tramway Company Ltd and Kelburne-Karori Motor Bus Company
  • Papers of Angus McCurdy - Originally collected by Les Cleveland for a study of McCurdy as a lobbyist and this angle might appeal to someone.
  • Many pamphlets and some MSS. material for Sir Robert Stout.
  • Papers of Geoffrey Joseph Schmitt re Tasman Pulp and Paper etc. Geoffrey Schmitt (1921-2000), later Emeritus Professor of Economics at Waikato University, was employed by Tasman Pulp and Paper Company Limited from 22 August 1953 to 31 December 1967, first as Secretary, later as General Manager, and from June 1963 as Managing Director. 23 bundles of papers originally deposited per Gary Hawke, plus 'Tasman: Early years of Tasman Pulp and Paper Company Limited: a personal history' and further papers deposited later.
  • NZ Institute of International Affairs
  • NZ Institute of Architects records 1906–1967 (later records are in Auckland)
  • Student drama—'Extravaganza' scripts from the 1940s and so on. Other student records: NZUSA (NZ Universities Students Assoc.) and VUWSA, NZ Student Arts Council posters, various Victoria University of Wellington clubs, for example the caving club, the Biological Society, the Anglican Society, Debating Club.
  • New Zealand Library School Students Association records
  • Graduates’ Association (University of New Zealand). The stated objects of the Association were to further the interests of University Education in New Zealand and to promote friendly intercourse among the students and graduates of the University. 1885–1892 (that is, pre-VUC). 'A meeting of graduates of the New Zealand University was held in the Congregational schoolroom, on the invitation of the Revd W H West BA LLB, on Thursday June 18th 1885. The graduates present were Rev. W H West BA, LLB, PS Hay MA, HB Kirk MA, JC Webb BA, W P Evans MA, JT Barnicoat BA, TR Fleming BA
  • Imperial Universities' Rifle Match Committee records 1945–1967
  • In the architectural history field, the Architecture and Design School Library holds papers and plans and so on from Gray Young architects.

Contact the librarian in the J C Beaglehole Room.