Heritage v. History

Material culture, landscape, memory, Section 106, shared authority, meta narrative, and Michael Frisch; all of these words have a special meaning for public historians (and words I also hear entirely too much between the months of September and May). Heritage is also one of those words. Despite the hefty amount that heritage has been thrown about in my grad program and at my internship, it can get a bit difficult to explain to others (especially those not in the field) what heritage means.  One of my supervisors at the Field Museum, who is an anthropologist, tells my fellow interns and I to capture different communities’ “performance of heritage”. I finally have a clearer understanding;  I have a firm idea about what heritage is and is not.

What Heritage Is

Heritage can simplistically be explained as something that is inherited or, in an even more basic definition, tradition. In the context of public history, anthropology or sociology, heritage (in less delicate terms) can be stuff people do because someone else they were related to used to do it or places that our of value because an ancestor once valued it.  Heritage is traditional practices, places, natural landscapes and even what we eat; we have cultural, intangible (language, folklore, etc.), natural, and food heritage. Its all about keeping an inheritance alive and passing it from one generation to the next as a means of identity, meaning-making, and community. Once you realize that heritage is dependent on being passed along and maintained by descendents then it is not hard to understand that heritage and conservation are best pals. Sacred meeting places, a unique language, and a recipe passed from your great-grandmother, are all performances of the past.

What Heritage Isn’t/History Steps In

History while different from heritage still seeks to understand it and preserve it, especially in the case of public history. The most distinct difference between the two is that history is more about evidence from the past and its analysis. While history has given many a historian “the warm fussies” (a technical term), it seems heritage is more about feeling and less about facts. Historians are going to tell you about the significant events of the American Civil War: data, why the Confederacy left the Union, what Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was like and so on. While Southern heritage, for example, passes on to a Southerner memories of Vicksburg, songs about the former glory of Dixie or maybe a inherited recipe from a slave past. History can get complex but heritage can get downright messy; some historians are not so fond of heritage for the issues and intentional silences it can create. History, if presented in a reasonably balanced manner, can be accessible to a diverse audience while certain expressions of heritage many times are specific to a particular group.

In summary, heritage is about inherited practiced culture,place and community. while history is a method of recounting and understanding the past.  In my opinion, history and heritage should have a relationship to one another since one can benefit the other and provide different modes of viewing the same past. Since heritage is what is purposely conserved it helps historians and social scientists understand what groups choose to remember, memorialize, and promote while simultaneously telling us what would rather be forgotten.

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