Sorting History, the Past, Historiography, and Heritage

Starting Point

When researching, writing, and teaching history it is important to distinguish between Heritage and History — they share characteristics but, academically, there are differences.[1]


Definitions to consider when researching, writing, and teaching History


History means different things to different people. Historians do not all agree on what history is, or how the word history should be used.[2]

As a historian who teaches history, I define History as “an intellectual exercise: a ‘critical disciplinary approach’ to analyzing the past” and I emphasize the point that ‘history’ is different from ‘the past.’[3]

As a working historian without my teaching hat on, I think of history as the study of human behaviour over time.

In both cases, I use historiography when I mean writing about the past/ history writing/ written history.


The word historiography is derived from the Greek terms historia and graphia, which literally translate as “history” and “writing.” The term is also used by historians to refer to the practice of comparing and contrasting historians’ writings to each other — often in an introductory section to history articles and books.

The Past

The past refers to the real, physical, lived-in world that existed at a previous point in time. We cannot go there; it is gone. The past is history’s object of inquiry.

History, then, is not the past. History is what historians recount, say, or write about the past. In that way history is one of many discourses (discussions that take place in the course of constructing knowledge) about the world — geographers, sociologists, artists, economists etc. have other discourses.

As well, one past can generate many histories, sometimes divergent histories. Historians do not all agree about how to represent (or re-present) the past, because:

• no historian can cover, and thus re-cover, the totality of past events.
• there is no way to check a history against the past for accuracy because the past is gone. (Typically, to be considered history and not current events the past studied is over 50 years gone).

The following lays out reasons why the past is different from history, as I understand some basic precepts about history at this point in time — not all historians, in all circumstances, at all points in time would necessarily agree with me:

• Historians must rely on traces of the past — historical evidence — to construct an idea of what the past was like. Historical evidence is distinct from scientific evidence, because history cannot be repeated in similar conditions — historians can’t experiment.
• Historical ‘facts’ are based on the evidence that historians happen, or choose, to find. In many respects the answers that historians discover about the past are contingent on the questions that historians ask. Consequently, the facts may change as they learn more about the subject. Historical facts are unlike scientific facts, because the scientific ones can be re-verified by experiment when needed. Because histories are ultimately based on how historians interpret available traces of the past, any history, no matter how verifiable or widely accepted its facts appear to be, remains a construct (an intellectually built opinion about the past and therefore a manifestation of a historian’s perspective).
• Historians’ perspectives are necessarily limited, because the available traces of the past are limited. Further, what historians can know, their knowledge about the past, is always contingent (dependant upon), or limited by their own views; their own present. History is not constructed for itself, as though it is isolated from the concerns that weigh upon a historian’s present: there is always someone or some group of people who are served by using history to portray the past. Historical knowledge is, therefore, not “pure.” (A critical question to ask when reading a history or heritage story is: who was this depiction of the past written for?)


Heritage is often conflated (confused with) history, especially in films and community commemorative activity, but there is a difference.

While “history is interested in the past, heritage is interested in how the past might be conserved and interpreted for the benefit of the present and future.”[4] This preservation and interpretation of heritage is celebratory and tends to involve overtly one-sided story-telling (which is not necessarily a bad thing, given the goal of heritage storytelling is to bind a community together by developing common goals and building pride in the community). As one commentator puts it: “Heritage passes on exclusive myths of origin and continuance, endowing a select group with prestige and common purpose.”[5]

Consider for example, the “Heritage Minutes” videos[6], or the made-for-TV series “Canada: A People’s History.”[7] These use history to develop dramatic and appealing representations — not of a complicated past, but of an imaginatively simplified one, in order to impart messages about what it is that average Canadians ought to be proud of, or thoughtful about (there are aspects of heritage that might not be pleasant, but that nevertheless serve to differentiate Canadians from other nations).[8]


Myths are biased constructs that explain, legitimate, and sanction existing social orders by justifying and rationalizing power structures.[9] They constitute a form of (can be used as) propaganda.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between myth (a form of ‘fiction’; i.e., unexamined assumptions about the past) and history (which strives for the ‘truth’/ accuracy; i.e., knowledge based on a careful review of available information about the past).[10] This is especially so when a historian uses the narrative form for their historiography (they write a story — as opposed to presenting an argument in which the validity of pieces of evidence from the past, and the ways in which the evidence might be interpreted, is debated).[11]


From Latin ‘to propagate’ information; the meaning was initially neutral, as in ‘spreading the faith.’[12]


[1] Adapted from Norma Hall, “Inventing Canada,” HIST 2282, University of Manitoba (2010 – 2011), an introductory course developed for students with little to no understanding of History as an academic discipline.

[2] See Keith Jenkins, On ‘what is history?’: from Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (1995; reprint, New York: Routledge, 2001), Google Books limited preview: See also “History is _______ (fill in the blank),” Department of History, University of Memphis (accessed 5 October 2014); and “398 Quotes about History!” (accessed 5 October 2014).

[3] Brian Martin Gallagher, “The Whig Interpretation of the History of Red River,” M.A. thesis (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1986), 1, argues, “history is not merely a narrative art but a social science whose object is to reveal the structure of past societies and the process of social change.”

[4] Peter Howard, Heritage: management, interpretation, identity (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 21.

[5] David Lowenthal, quoted in, David Neufeld, “Parks Canada and the Commemoration of the North: History and Heritage,” in Northern Visions: new perspectives on the North in Canadian history, ed. Kerry Abel, and Ken S. Coates (Peterborough, ON.: Broadview Press, 2001), 46. See also Graham MacDonald, review of The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, by David Lowental, Manitoba History 39 (spring/summer 2000), available online, Manitoba Historical Society website,

[6] See “Heritage Minute,” Wkipedia, (accessed 30 July 2010), which supplies a description of the series and links to individual videos.

[7] See Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Le Canada: A People’s History · Une Histoire Populaire, website,; and See Graham Lanktree, “Building Canada with a TV – Exploring the Heritage Minutes (Part 2),” CG Compass Blog, Canadian Geographic (accessed 12 February 2011), which notes that Patrick Watson, who was creative director, principle writer, and narrator of the project, stated, “We’re not really doing documentaries, here. We’re making myths.”

[8] See Darren Bryant and Penney Clark, “Historical Empathy and Canada: A People’s History,” Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation (2006): 1057, available online in pdf form, See also Bauer Perzival, “Op-ed(s): ‘Blue’ Humour at the expense of Canadian History” (28 January 2014), for a critical commentary on the political re-design of history as a national heritage project.

[9] See Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 1996; reprint 2000), 18-19 (page citations are to the reprint edition); and Graeme Patterson, History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the Interpretation of History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 165-169.

[10] Peter Heehs, “Myth, History, and Theory,” History and Theory 33, no. 1 (February 1994): 1-19, observes, “Some … historians have become aware that much so-called factual history is interfused with such assumptions. What we call history is at best mythistory. Some even suggest that there can be no real distinction between the discourses of myth and history, between fact and fiction.” William H. McNeill, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians,” The American Historical Review 91, no. 1 (February 1986): 1, observes, “Myth and history are close kin as both explain how things got to be the way they are by telling some sort of story. But our common parlance reckons myth to be false while history is, or aspires to be, true. Accordingly, a historian who rejects someone else’s conclusions calls them mythical, while claiming that his own views are true. But what seems true to one historian will seems false to another, so one historian’s truth becomes another’s myth, even at the moment of utterance.”

[11] In my estimation, a history-story is primarily a literary endeavor, while a history-argument is primarily a rhetorical endeavor. In historiography (in a single piece of written work and in any collection of written works) there is always overlap between the two (because as human beings, with communication strategies that work the human way, historians cannot entirely escape either story-telling nor argument). See, Steven Strang, “Rhetoric,” MIT 21W.747-1, OpenCourseWare (2010); Charles K. Tefler, “The Turbulent Fortunes of Narrativity in Twentieth-Century Historiograpy,” MAJT 21 (2010), 7-19; and E.P. Thompson, part vii, “The Poverty of Theory, Or an Orrery of Errors,” The Poverty of Theory: and Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1978), 50-68 (available online at Scribd, page numbers are to the Scribd version).

[12] See “Propaganda,” Wikipedia (accessed 5 October 2014).


Published: 27 April 2012

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