History Culture

History culture, according to Jörn Rüsen, is every "practically effective articulation of historical consciousness in the life of a society" (Rüsen 1994: 5; my translation). But Rüsen is quick to point out that history culture is not just relating to 'consciousness'; it also includes other forms of 'historical recollection' (1994: 5–7).
History culture comprises all references in society to past times, i.e. all occasions where the past is 'presenced' in everyday social life. This includes heritage sites, museum exhibitions, school lessons, tourist brochures, political speeches, historical novels, TV documentaries, some advertisements, academic lectures, narrated folktales, and guided tours to ancient monuments and other sites of memory.

In so many diverse contexts, interpretations of the past do not always follow academic habits and conventions. Most forms of history culture are, for instance, not dependent on a historically accurate chronology. In our history culture, there is no fundamental split between memory and history, past and present are united, and exact dating is of little relevance. 'Old is old, it doesn't matter how old' is probably the most widespread attitude in our society, and this is reflected in its history culture (Lowenthal 1985: 219f., 223; see also Fowler 1992: 6). Dinosaurs, megaliths, and Germanic tribes equally belong to what is known as prehistory. Similarly, history culture does not necessarily keep different archaeological cultures and contexts apart. History culture is contextual, not regarding the past but regarding the present.

History culture on Rügen (1995)

Rüsen argues that by expressing cultural memory and supplying the members of a society with collective memories, history culture assists people in finding historical identities and temporal orientation for their actions (1994: 10f.). Such memories are seen by Rüsen as cultural achievements which draw on the three fundamental dimensions of modern society: the aesthetic, the political and the cognitive.
History culture in Neu Gaarz (1995)
These three dimensions, which aim at the principles of beauty, power and truth respectively, are equally part of history culture and also maintain complex interrelations with each other (Rüsen 1992: 238–240, 1994:11–23). Rüsen stresses the autonomy of all three dimensions and the dangers of reducing any one to any other. If monuments are understood as part of a wider history culture, their meanings regarding the aesthetic, political and cognitive dimensions of society should accordingly be studied with equal attention: what were and are both the poetics of monuments and the aesthetics of their receptions? In which political contexts were and are monuments used and perceived? What do we firmly know about them and their 'life-histories'? So far, only the last question has been explicitly addressed by archaeologists. But this is not sufficient.

To some extent, Sam Smiles' aims are therefore also mine (1994: 7):

"Notwithstanding the achievements of archaeology today we too are inevitably the creatures and captives of mentalities we only dimly perceive. In an extreme view, the world scientifically described is fundamentally as mythic a construction as any other and gains its meaning from the manipulation of a particular set of symbolic exchanges every bit as arbitrary as the tenets of Egyptian religion, mediaeval Scholasticism or the beliefs of the Dakota people. Further, our contemporary scepticism concerning truth and progress, our sympathy for 'unscientific' or intuitive knowledge is itself specific to the modalities of late twentieth-century Western culture, our very recognition of the provisionality of knowledge is itself provisional. There is no escape from this dizzying regress, but our awareness of the predicament, our willingness to recognise that there are varieties of truth gives us good reason to put progressivist histories of archaeology into abeyance for a moment and attempt instead to investigate the poetics of prehistory."

I argue in this work that all receptions of ancient monuments, whether in later prehistory, in history, or in the present, were or are expressions of the particular history culture of the time, and derived or derive from a distinctive cultural memory. In the future, we should not only try to understand the various ways of thinking which underlie such different receptions, but also study their aesthetics and politics.


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

Rüsen, Jörn (1992) Geschichtskultur als Forschungsproblem. In: J.Rüsen, Historische Orientierung, pp. 235-245. Köln: Böhlau.

Rüsen, Jörn (1994) Was ist Geschichtskultur? Überlegungen zu einer neuen Art, über Geschichte nachzudenken. In: K.Füßmann, H.T.Grütter, J.Rüsen (eds) Historische Faszination. Geschichtskultur heute, pp. 3-26. Köln: Böhlau.

Smiles, Sam (1994) The Image of Antiquity: Ancient Britain and the Romantic Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press.

© Cornelius Holtorf