History Takes a Holiday

Where oh where has “History” gone? History is more and more being crowded off the stage of the public mind by its more flamboyant cousin “Heritage”–and not just by purveyors of entertainment like Disneyland and Hollywood, but by respectable organizations promoting preservation and cultural tourism.

“Heritage” language and themes pervade travel guides and community websites as well as public and museum programs. The National Trust for Historic Preservation encourages “using heritage to encourage tourism.” The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism promotes “Heritage tours: Legendary monuments, historic sites and comprehensive tours [that] retrace how “Massachusetts invented America.” Wellesley College will host an up-coming conference entitled “Sustaining Heritage; Sustaining Communities”.

David Lowenthal, the author of The Past is a Foreign Country, notes that over the past twenty-five years or so, while historians have stressed more and more the “manifold differences of humanity’s complex past, so unlike our own circumstances they seem bizarrely incomprehensible,” the public, in contrast, “increasingly domesticates that past, refashioning it in modern terms, and then praising it for echoing with their own precepts or damning it for failing to conform to them.” For Lowenthal, the emphasis on heritage to the exclusion of history has resulted in a “wholesale perversion of history” so overwhelming that he has decided to retitle the forthcoming new edition of his book The Past WAS a Foreign Country

The chasm Lowenthal sees between history and heritage has not always existed. From the 19th through the turn of the 20th centuries, heritage and history were closely aligned and mutually reinforcing. This is not to say that the two are or were ever the same thing. Certainly, the widespread practice among historic sites, funders and communities to focus on heritage at the expense of history has blurred what are in actuality two very different ways in which people have traditionally understood the past. The roots of these two words highlight their differences: “Heritage” comes from the Latin for inheritance, birthright and tradition while “History” came onto the scene as one of the nine Greek Muses, Clio– and the term comes from the Greek word for “learned.”

Heritage is not a solitary activity—it actively connects people with others as we affirm our common understandings of the past, be they positive (hardy immigrants battling tough odds) or negative (the northern slave trade). Unlike history, heritage is not really accountable to scholarship. Heritage is inherently emotional, and frequently nostalgic, traits which often lead it to simplify a complex past. It can be unapologetically sentimental about an imagined past and may sanitize unpleasant occurrences of that past. These traits make heritage susceptible to stereotyping and lends itself to commercialism. And, the same traits that make it potentially celebratory can also make it aggrandizing and ethnically exclusive. (For example, fabricated German and Italian Heritage narratives were lynchpins of Fascist theory.)

History, on the other hand, is an academic discipline whose practitioners are expected to keep to certain “rules of the road” and are held accountable through process and review. Although not without its own faults and limitations, history has mechanisms for correcting errors or misinterpretation. These activities sometimes challenge or fly in the face of cherished Heritage narratives (Oh no, the dreaded “Revisionists”). And, of course, historians face a phalanx of trained (and amateur) critics to try to keep it all “honest.”

As historians working at a regional museum, we routinely experience firsthand the power of heritage to connect adults and children with an imagined past. In Old Deerfield we have two large institutions closely identified with the term “Heritage.” The oldest is the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. Founded in 1870, the PVMA’s origin reflects a time when heritage and history were much more closely aligned in the public consciousness, including the popular practice of “memorializing” the past with monuments and a Memorial Hall of relics.

The village’s largest museum was founded in the 1950’s as “The Heritage Foundation” where its founders proudly promoted the historic preservation of the village as a bulwark against Communism. (See “Foreword”, Frontiers of Freedom, Flynt and Chamberlain.) Forty years ago this year Deerfield’s “Heritage Foundation” re-branded itself “Historic Deerfield, Inc.” By the 1970s, “Historic” was the new de rigueur term for museums, in contrast to more established institutions that had chosen to use some combination of “Old ______ Village” or “Colonial ________” as their names.

For the record, the official Federal designation of the Deerfield old Main Street area is “The Old Deerfield Village Historic Landmark District.” With a nod to full disclosure, I was among the last class of the Heritage Foundation Summer Fellowship Program, summer of 1971 which continues to this day but under a different name. For the past 35 years I have been director of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.

Still another Deerfield institution associated with “Heritage” is the venerable Deerfield Academy. The Academy’s motto, still emblazoned on coffee cups and t-shirts, “Be Worthy of Your Heritage” echoes the class consciousness and sense of entitlement of an earlier era in WASP New England –a motto somewhat at odds with the international and inclusive Deerfield Academy of the 21st century. (Perhaps the Academy will consider changing their motto. They did once before–their earliest motto in 1799 was “Be wary of the impressions that you make,” an admonishment which reflects the spirit of the Age of Refinement–a period of self improvement and social mobility more open to the average middle-class citizen following the American Revolution, which resulted in the establishment of dozens of academies across New England.)

For all their differences, heritage and history are interdependent and can mutually benefit from one another. There is already a working relationship between the two in most history museums–a balancing act of engaging the heritage-driven passion of the public to connect with the past while attempting to correct and refine the errors to which heritage is prone through rigorous historical research and inquiry. Most museums have living history programs, celebrate holidays (appropriate to their historic period or not) and celebrate individual ethnic groups with festivals and cultural events. But it is not always an easy fit. You can observe the tension between Heritage and History when a devotee of a Heritage version of a Founding Father (say Jefferson or Washington) encounters the historical figure with all his flaws at a museum exhibit or new interpretation at an ancestral home. Not too long ago Colonial Williamsburg, highly associated by many with Southern heritage and tradition, horrified the public with a reenactment of an historically accurate slave auction which disturbed the heritage ambiance of the recreated town and received much criticism.

All of this suggests that it is essential that institutions like PVMA must reunite the cultural energy of heritage with the academic rigor of history. This will enable museums and historic sites to captivate diverse audiences both emotionally and intellectually. This is important because heritage sites are where individual American seek a collective, shared understanding of the past. The irrepressible human impulse to look to the past to interpret our present imbues both historical inquiry and the emotive power of heritage. While heritage reflects and compels the present generation’s interest in the past, history offers museums the opportunity to place those multiple stories into a broader narrative that acknowledges their essential relevance without sacrificing complexity. The past matters because the past we create today is the one which generations to come will inherit.

Author: Tim Neumann, Barbara Mathews and Darlene Marshall

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