History vs heritage

No, this is not a battle (whatever some scholars would have you believe, yes, I’m looking at you, Lowenthal). It’s simply a delineation. As someone who started studying history before slipping, slowly but surely, into the heritage bracket,* I know that heritage and history have much of the same content, but totally different mindsets. Sound strange? I’ll explain.

Heritage is drawn from history. Not necessarily any particular period (although traditionally, the older something is, the rarer, and therefore, the more interesting.) What we know of the past is drawn into our heritage – physically and mentally. Museums both curate the physical relics of the past, and tell the stories of our history through its legacies.

Image of a large round stone wall around a grassed-over mound. A group of people are clustered at the entrance to a passage into the centre.
Newgrange Neolithic site, in Ireland, is simultaneously history and heritage. It is the legacy of a far gone past, and is, because of its age and rarity, highly valued by archaeologists – but our understandings of its history change with our own social contexts. From flickr.com/photos/pdbreen/3796235534

So where is the line? Historians aim to find out about the past; what happened, when, and how. These stories are, inevitably, biased – history told not only by the victors, but by the literate, and the popular, and those who might not even have been there at the time but were passing on an interesting rumour they heard from their gran’s friend’s parrot’s cousin. Moreover, our understanding of history is subjective, drawing on our own assumptions about the capacities and roles of people in the past which we may not even know we have. (See, for example, the long line of English colonial scholars described in Harvey’s 2001 Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presentsall of whom believed that Newgrange Neolithic site could not possibly have been built by the ancestors of the ‘barbarous’ Irish without assistance from a ‘civilised’ society like the Romans; or the famous case of the archaeologists who assumed that a Viking warrior buried with honour and wealth must have been male regardless of the female characteristics of the skeleton.) And yet, despite our human fallibility, the ultimate quest of the historian is for the truth of the past.

Heritage scholars do not care, as historians do, about the truth of the past. Don’t take that the wrong way – what is important, in heritage, is how what we know of the past is told. What do we, in the present, make of the legacies of our past?

Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette reclines in a chair. On top of the image white letters read "LET THEM EAT CAKE" with an image of a cupcake.
Kirsten Dunst plays Marie Antoinette in the 2006 biopic, superimposed with her fictional catchprase (from cargocollective.com/charcharins/Let-them-eat-cake) Film director Sofia Coppola said that the film was “not a lesson of history. It is an interpretation documented, but carried by my desire for covering the subject differently.” Oduwa 2013: “The Mythology of Marie Antoinette”

This is the crux of the dispute which sometimes flares up between historians and heritage scholars. When historians believe that history is objective, they see heritage as a corruption or ‘Disneyfication’ of the truth of the past – exploited unethically for economic purposes, or simplified to the point of misinformation to be as accessible as possible  for a tourist audience.

And yet, sometimes, the most influential parts of history are not the most true. Perhaps Robin Hood and King Arthur never existed; Columbus was probably not the first European explorer to find America; Marie Antoinette was unlikely ever to have said ‘let them eat cake’. But these myths have woven themselves into narratives about power, identity, and the way we understand the world – the truth of them is less important, for many people, than the way they are used and the impact they can have. These narratives are no less real, in the sense that they influence people’s actions, than some real historical events.

Even provable historical people or events, however careful a historian may be to leave their own subjectivity out of the narrative, can be used for political, social, or economic purposes: to legitimise a political campaign; create a social group with a shared identity drawn from the past; or draw tourism and investment to an area by publicising the popular or scenic parts of its heritagescape. Through this process of use and interpretation, the past moves out of history books, and into the realm of heritage. Historians find out what happened; heritage scholars ask why we care.

*Mainly because they allow you outside the archives sometimes, and occasionally, you can even talk to people. Real alive people!


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