Is heritage studies equivalent to public history?

As an teacher, I am interested in the curricula of degree programs that address the multiple forms of tangible and intangible heritage. I often like to look at post-secondary degree programs to see how they are structured to help consider ways to improve the program in which I teach. One theme that seems to be emerging is that, in the United States, “heritage studies” is often synonymous with public history. I find this disconcerting because the literature on heritage studies clearly differentiates “heritage” from “history.”

In the 1980s, David Lowenthal made what is arguably one of the most influential explorations of the meanings of history and heritage. In the 1970s and ’80s, the discipline of history and the techniques of historiography made the post-modern turn and rejected the possibility of being able to objectively recreate the past. Realizing that history is actually an act of interpreting multiple possible realities, during this time, historiography began to explore the idea of multiple interpretations of the past and embrace the idea of uncertainty, especially from different cultural perspectives. (In other words, history from the perspective of the conqueror is very different from history from the perspective of the conquered.)

The academy deprecates public history (and its associated practice of local history) as being too applied and lacking high intellectual value; perhaps this situation is why public history remains embedded in the positivistic roots of its parent discipline’s past. More specifically, public history often focuses on the collection of as many facts as possible to create singular interpretations for public consumption that deny multiple interpretations of reality and extra-cultural perspectives. In the United States, one of the most public manifestations of public history is the preparation of National Register of Historic Places nominations. Keeping in mind that the goal of historical positivism is “to discover the laws ruling the temporal sequence of historical facts” (Erdman, 2005, p. 17), instructions for preparing a National Register nomination (National Register Bulletin 15, 1997) are as follows:

A person wishing to prepare a nomination needs a thorough knowledge of the property. By physically inspecting the property and conducting historical research, applicants can gather facts such as the physical characteristics of the property, date of construction, changes to the property over time, historic functions and activities, association with events and persons, and the role of the property in the history of the community, State, or the nation.

The applicant is then instructed to assemble these facts into an objective account, organized by temporal sequence, of what “really” happened in the past; the more accurate the account (i.e., more facts), the more significant the property can become. Other forms of public history that manifest in museums and historic sites around America share similar emphases on the objective collection of facts and often singular interpretations.

So, back to heritage. In the literature on heritage studies, there is a general consensus that history is “the raw facts of the past” (Aitchison, MacLeod, & Shaw 2000, p. 96) while heritage “is history processed through mythology, ideology, nationalism, local pride, romantic ideas or just plain marketing” (Schouten 1995, p. 21). The meanings of heritage are therefore subjective and rooted in the present; these meanings are defined by social, cultural, and individual processes. In other words, the meanings of heritage can be understood through contemporary sociocultural and experiential values. Lowenthal (1985, p. 410) argues that in the realm of human experience, we create heritage; to most people, heritage is therefore is more important than history and is a product of human invention and creativity:

The answer is that a fixed past is not what we really need, or at any rate not all we need. We require a heritage with which we continually interact, one which fuses past with present. This heritage is not only necessary but inescapable; we cannot now avoid feeling that the past is to some extent our own creation. If today’s insights can be seen as integral to the meaning of the past, rather than subversive of its truth, we may breathe new life into it.

Heritage is also intimately related to people’s relationship with place as Laurajane Smith (2006, p. 75) alludes when claiming that “heritage is about sense of place.”  In the 1970s, the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1977, pp. 194, 198) noted that the practice of historic preservation and public history essentially have nothing to do with how people are affected by place or attached to place. Many heritage studies scholars would agree that not much has changed since this time.

This is where the curricula of many heritage studies programs in the United States becomes troubling, because upon examining courses offered and faculty specializations, these programs look suspiciously like public history programs. A central component that is missing is the social sciences–coursework that discusses sociological, anthropological, and psychological aspects of people’s relationship to heritage. Undoubtedly, upon graduation from such a program, a student would likely have excellent skills in archival research and conventional museum interpretation, but know little about the sociocultural dimensions of heritage, including stakeholders’ emotional relationship to place. Largely absent in the readings and topics of these courses is literature on folklore, critical heritage studies theory, and perspectives from the social sciences.

This observation does not obviate the need for students of programs that address heritage conservation/historic preservation/heritage studies to understand local/public history and archival research. But, to assign the moniker of “heritage studies” to a degree program that overemphasizes public history with little balance from the social sciences seems disingenuous.

This critique stems from the basic assumption that if we engage in heritage conservation for the benefit of people, then we need to better understand people’s relationship to heritage. And the best tool that we have for this understanding is the social sciences. The logical conclusion is that heritage studies degree programs therefore need a social science component.


Aitchison, C.,MacLeod, N.E., Shaw, S.J. (2000). Leisure and tourism landscapes: Social and cultural geographies. London: Routledge.

Lowenthal, D. (1985). The past is a foreign country. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schouten, F.F.J. (1995). Heritage as historical reality. In D. T. Herbert (ed.), Heritage, tourism and society. London: Mansell.

Smith, Laurajane. The Uses of Heritage. London: Taylor & Francis, 2006.

Tuan, Y. F. (1977). Space and place: the perspectives of experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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