Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Review: David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History

by Graham MacDonald
Calgary, Alberta

Number 39, Spring / Summer 2000

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David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 338 pp. ISBN 0 521 635624.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the word heritage appeared in a new guise in the western vocabulary, one which metaphorically might be equated to the figure of Janus, that ancient Roman figure with two faces poised above certain temple doors. The meaning of the word heritage is now so ambiguous that, in retrospect, one may now understand why it achieved so much success in the hands of post-1960 politicians anxious to rename various cultural agencies under their authority. The word was recognized to have the capacity to be both inoffensive and infinitely flexible. It looked both backward and forward.

The many writings of David Lowenthal have been helpful to those anxious to sort out the legitimate from the spurious in twentieth century western preoccupations with organized history and heritage. [1] The author achieved considerable success in 1985 with his voluminous The Past is a Foreign Country, an erudite tome in which he demonstrated both the widespread popularity of material culture studies and practices in the western world but also the futility of attempts to totally prevent the natural decay and loss of material vestiges of the past. [2] In publishing The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Mr. Lowenthal has taken us further down this road and on this excursion he takes time to guide us along several interesting and unexpected detours. He is no longer concerned with just material culture and public or private attempts to freeze-dry remnants of the past in the midst of the on-going hurly-burly of daily life. He is now concerned to demonstrate the implications of our use of the words “history” and “heritage” in our daily lives and how these words serve to motivate or confuse. In doing so he explores several large theme areas, including personal and collective legacies, the practice of heritage and history, the role of modern science in the shaping of modern notions of heritage, and the social conflicts implicit in the idea of heritage.

Costumed interpreter spinning wool at Lower Fort Garry in the 1970s: equating “heritage” with “history”.
Source: Parks Canada

His main argument appears to be that history, as an important idea at large in public discourse, is fundamentally different from the idea of heritage with which it is often linked. Many individuals, governments and private organizations tend to almost equate the two concepts. In Lowenthal’s view this is a serious, although understandable, category error. Indeed, he believes “heritage” has become “a quasi-religious cult.” (250) He suggests that what historians often call “presentism” (a desire to investigate history and draw or extract conclusions useful to the furtherance of present purposes) is really the viewpoint lodged at the heart of many heritage projects. Lowenthal prefers the term “updating.” (148) “Like medieval relics, heritage is sanctioned not by proof of origins but by present exploits.” (127) The distinction between heritage and history is one of motive. “We use heritage to improve the past, making it better (or worse) by modern lights.” (156) While the heritage impulse may, in articulating its projects, share in some of the allegedly disinterested procedures of historical enquiry, it is more often remarkable for being pursued in the interests of self-fulfilling prophesies and substantive purposes. Many of these strains surface in some kind of special pleading for group identity, a personality, a social movement, a building, a language, a singular development in science or culture, an event (sometimes of more or less traumatic proportions), repatriation of objects, or retrospective collective justice. The contemporary purposes which heritage may seek to further are as infinite as human enterprise itself.

There are of course, many ways in which a historical dimension influences daily life. We live by remembering and recall. Science itself is predicated on a historical dimension: that of a capacity to carry out repeat observations of like phenomena over time. The art of “doing” critical history on the other hand, is concerned, according to many theoretical accounts, with the attempt to answer certain kinds of questions according to certain procedures governing evidence. Unlike the objectives of a lawyer (who appeals to similar ground rules), the purpose of the historian is not to argue guilt or innocence on historical grounds, but merely to clarify what went on at a certain time and within a certain set of circumstances. When practical purposes intervene to co-opt historical enquiries, historical enquiry itself is, by degree, compromised. This was the argument put forth in some detail by Michael Oakeshott in a famous essay in which he attempted to distinguish the “historical” past from the “practical” past. [3] Lowenthal’s treatise may be read as a grand reverie upon this distinction. While aware of Oakeshott’s argument, Lowenthal’s conclusions are less austere. In exploring the differences between history as disinterested enquiry, and heritage as a concept motivated by practical and presentist impulses, he draws upon case studies which reveal difficult methodological questions more often explored by the theoretical philosopher. [4] His achievement is to explore these questions in an interesting and readable way. In doing so he ranges far and wide in his citing of examples from the heritage wars: from crusades to repatriate artifacts hauled away by various imperial powers, to discussion of the desire for censorship to be exercised by various oppressed groups over contemporary research into group “patrimony”. Indeed “falsified legacies are integral to the exclusive purpose of group identity.” (132) The implication of such a claim to a group proprietary interest in “heritage” is that “History is for all. Heritage is for us alone.” (128)

One of the most original chapters is entitled “Being Innate.” It has a strong connection with an earlier chapter on “Personal Legacies”. The shifts in fashion concerning genealogy have been remarkable in recent times. It is a growth industry. The author demonstrates how this efflorescence of genealogical research is related to practical and contemporary impulses for prestige and personal identity in a secularizing world. The need to trace oneself to the antique upper ranks of society has lost much of its appeal to all except a few newspaper barons. On the contrary, to identify an ancestor who took part in a machine-breaking episode or who smuggled whisky is now more likely to invoke pride than horror. A skeleton in the closet is not a bad thing for conversational purposes.

This is innocent enough, but on the broader front of inheritance, Lowenthal shows himself to be perceptive in his interpretation of the current projects of genetic research and science and what they portend for the concept of heritage. “Determinisms once based on blood now stress genes—or combine the two.” The result: “DNA tests echo the magical power of sacred relics. Scientific text and moral guide, the Human Genome Project is both Scripture and Holy Grail.” (204). A conclusion of this chapter is that while the rhetoric of heritage appears to stress wide scale appreciation of diversity, human behaviour reveals a greater preoccupation with the preservation of exclusive blood and genetic inheritance lines, and with strengthening taboos on racial and social admixture.

This chapter flows disturbingly into his final chapter called “Rivalry and Restitution”. Historical understanding may easily becomes converted into dogma when the substantive purpose to be served is a program with preconceived beliefs about race and belonging at its core. Twentieth century history is littered with the residue of such narrow-minded projects. The directions taken by controlled political advocacy of heritage have often been of a most unsavoury nature. In this chapter, Lowenthal draws the obvious conclusion. In the orchard of heritage, with its rich array of fruit trees, the worm is nevertheless on the vine: “to bolster heritage faith with historical scholarship, as is now the fashion, smudges the line between faith and fact. It deprives adherents of rational scrutiny and choice, mires them in fatalism, and leaves them at the mercy of simplistic chauvinists.” (250).

Lowenthal has produced an important book in a breezy style. It might be better for being shorter, for there are times when the reader feels somewhat overwhelmed by the author’s building up of layer upon layer of example. The bibliography is the key to the author’s appraisal and it will be of great interest to those involved in museum work, public history and any branch of heritage.


1. See in particular, David Lowenthal, ed. George Perkin’s Marsh, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1860, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1965); ‘Age and Artifact’ in: D. W. Meining, ed. The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays, (New York:Oxford University Press, 1979); and ‘Archaeologists and Others’ in: P. Gathercole and D. Lowenthal, eds. The Politics of the Past (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990).

2. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

3. Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Activity of Being an Historian’ in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. (London: Methuen, 1962), 137-67. See the same author’s later elaboration of this topic in On History and Other Essays (London: Basil Blackwell, 1983).

4. See David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (London: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 236-7; 365-8; W. H. Walsh, ‘The Practical Past and the Historical Past’ in: Politics and Experience: Essays Presented to Michael Oakeshott, Preston King and B. C. Perekh, eds. (London: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 5-18.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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