Interpreting History, Heritage – or Politics?

When I recently visited Germany on my first research study visit, my interviewees used two terms to describe interpretive foci, which I found quite intriguing: ‘Ereignisgeschichte’ (event history) and ‘Rezeptionsgeschichte’ (reception history).

We don’t generally use these terms in English and in our writings.  However, I wonder if they can go some way in helping us conceptualize the (interpretive) issue around history vs heritage [1].

In German usage, the Ereignisgeschichte (event history) tells the story of what happened, when, where, and of the actors involved [2].  It doesn’t go into how it may have influenced the future and our present, nor how we relate to the event today.  In many ways, it seems to me that as such Ereignisgeschichte equates (much more elegantly expressed) to what in English we mean by ‘history’.

Rezeptionsgeschichte (reception history), on the other hand, focuses on how people have responded to the event since: how they wrote about it in poetry, for example, or how they made it part of their identity make-up over time. Rezeptionsgeschichte thus is a rather academic, life-less description of what in practice more often than not involves very personal and passionate emotions.  For this reason I wouldn’t equate it with what we mean by ‘heritage’ in English, which expresses (in my mind) just these emotions felt by people.  However, as an approach to interpreting heritage, Rezeptionsgeschichte strikes me as a rather perfect method.

Let me elaborate.  When I did research at the Battle of the Boyne, I was told that the interpretive focus was on history because the debate surrounding the battle and its aftermath still caused so much emotion and unrest in modern Ireland.  While I appreciate the argument, I wonder whether the site’s interpretation consequently has any effect at all [3].

Using a reception history approach, however, might have allowed to present all subsequent responses to the battle without being emotional or appearing to take sides.  Just as in presenting historical facts [see note 2], a reception history approach allows to be ‘objective’, while still acknowledging people’s stake in the event.

It seems to me that especially at sites with contested or controversial heritage the reception history approach to interpretation may just be the solution.  Personally, wherever possible I still prefer a more immediate interpretation that reflects and resonates with people’s heritage beliefs and emotions.  However, where such ‘hot’ interpretation, as Uzzel and Ballantyne [4] have called it, is not possible, the reception history approach is far more appropriate than the history approach.  I cannot help but feel that a history approach to interpretation is almost always a cop out.

On a final note, I also want to share another term they use in German: Geschichtspolitik. Now this is a term I really cannot adequately translate into English – we have nothing like it.  What it actually means is the political use of history, for example through the selective recall of facts, or the reframing of events to suit modern needs.  Interestingly, in the English-language discourse this is usually a concept associated with heritage, and in fact, it is this proposed political (and consequently presumably flighty) dimension of heritage that is used as an argument in favour of the history approach to interpretation.  I am not entirely sure yet how we might be able to use this concept – Geschichtspolitik – to improve our interpretive practice. However, I find it most helpful to separate the political use of history out from both history and heritage.  Maybe it can sit in a reception history approach to interpretation, or maybe it is a separate aspect altogether, as the German discourse seems to suggest.  Either way, it’s good to think about these concepts, and recognise that our understanding of and responses to these concepts as interpreters have far-reaching consequences for our visitors.  They’re not something we can ignore.


[1] Two years ago, I wrote this article on the matter.  Back then, I wrongly came to the conclusion that the debate of ‘history vs heritage’ had come to an end two decades before.  This is not so.  While today heritage is less often opposed to ‘history’ as a term and concept these days, the underlying questions are the same.  What is more, the concept of heritage has seen a much more vigorous critical examination than what existed in the 1980s and 90s.

[2] As far as that is possible.  But I won’t get into a discussion now of how objective or authoritative any history can ever be.

[3] I was not given permission to conduct visitor research there as the management felt this would stir up emotions when the site was intended to allow for peaceful and private contemplation.  Again, I appreciate the motivation here, and yet the consequence of this decision is that they will not know the impact of their interpretation, nor will we be able to learn from it. For all we know, the heritage communities in question may feel the site is lifeless due to the omission in the interpretation of their heritage represented in the site, while visitors, well aware of the tensions in Ireland, may feel they came to what they thought was an important site in understanding this history, and yet they walk away as puzzled and uninformed as they came.

[4] Uzzel, D. and Ballantyne, R., 2008. ‘Heritage that Hurts: Interpretation in a postmodern world.’ In: In: Fairclough, G. et al (eds), 2008.  The Heritage Reader. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 502 – 513

One thought on “Interpreting History, Heritage – or Politics?

  1. Thanks Nicole for this enlightening concept. I have “felt” this way about heritage interpretation (when it is done badly – “just the facts, ma’m”) but have not had it put in these kinds of terms. Very helpful!

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