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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Meet Me at the Maori House

Photo courtesy of Field Museum

Photo courtesy of Field Museum

I wanted to stop by and share with you an interesting experience I had at the Field Museum two Wednesdays ago. As part of my internship, my fellow interns and I along with are supervisors have a weekly meeting on Wednesdays. After our meeting on the 10th, all of us interns came away with are weekly assignments and focus for the rest of the week. That is when one of our supervisors told us that a group of high school students would be meeting with staff of the anthropology department and the meeting would take place at the Maori House (formally Maori Meeting House, Ruatepupuke II). The students were in a program that was for teens from Bronzeville and Pilsen which are African American and Mexican American neighborhoods, respectively.

The Maori House is an permanent exhibit at the Field Museum near the museum’s south Pacific exhibition. The Maori from New Zealand, whom this meeting house formerly belongs to, allowed the museum to keep it even though the meeting house is a place of great importance to their heritage. The place is representative of their honored ancestors, one of which is Ruatepupuke. Our supervisor said that using the Maori House as a gathering place was a part of the agreement made with Maori. This is when we found out that there would be a ceremony held at the Maori House and there would be singing. He did mention that while the ceremony is similar to the ritual that Maori used when new people came into their territory, we were not at all suppose to be pretending to be Maori. Suddenly our internship turned into choir practice as we worked on a song to offer to our visitors (“Simple Gifts” a Shaker hymn, an interesting choice).

When the time came to meet at the Maori House, all of the interns realized how serious this ceremony was. Another anthropologist (who expertise is definitely in this area) led us in what to do, where to stand, and what not to do. We also found out that the high school group had prepared for the ceremony in return. At the end of the ceremony everyone joined together and we processed through the Maori House, solemnly touching each carving inside the meeting house which represented an ancestor. When I made it half way around the house, suddenly a loud chant broke out. There were two visitors to the museum at the house entryway. We found out that the couple was from New Zealand and that man who was chanting just happened to know a Maori blessing.

What turned out to be a little silly to me and other interns ended up being a meaningful gesture between the museum staff and the high school students. After the ceremony we went outside and shared snacks. It was a good time to hear what the teens were experiencing that summer. Unfortunately, we never learned the name of the program they were in but nevertheless it turned out to be a learning experience for everyone.

Pierogi and the People

Apparently, going to something called Pierogi Fest is my internship duties description and I’m happy with that. And if you’re thinking “will all of her blog posts have food references in the title?” The answer is no…maybe.

I want to briefly mention what I did today at my internship. After some required reading (assigned from a syllabus, no less), I’m starting to get a better idea of what these projects are about. In a meeting today we went over guides for doing interviews/oral histories. I can see that this internship is all about the intersection between heritage, industrial and labor history as well as environmental conservation. Personally, I’m happy to see attempts that make heritage and history useful for communities. As a public historian, my greatest hope for my future career is that my work can actually achieve something positive for an individual or group. I don’t want everything I do to remain in a book or a museum case (mind you I still enjoy studying the family tree of the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt and other similarly “useful” historical knowledge).

I wonder if any of you would like to comment on what responsibilities historians have to the the pubic.  Can historians simultaneously be activists?