The concept of historical culture arose in German history didactics in the late 1970s to study the interplay between academic and (semi) popular institutions that constitute historical knowledge. Here—according to Rusen—historical culture works as a synthesizing concept, involving extracurricular and curricular knowledge, material and immaterial articulations, linking places of memory to functions of memory. The concept gained renewed relevance in the wake of the cultural turn and the memory boom as a holistic, meta-historical concept that enables the integral study of past-relationships in societies. The rising popularity of social constructivism and memory studies has introduced its own problems. First, scholars became increasingly occupied with the issue of defining the relationship between the concept historical culture and concepts from memory studies such as memory culture (Demantowsky, 2005; Hasberg, 2004), and thus focused mainly on definition issues. Second, we noticed that the classification schemes which were devised to show which cultural domains interacted within historical cultures (Rusen, 1994) provided few tools to study the actual genesis and perception of historical (re)presentations. Third, the perceived connection of historical culture to historical consciousness obstructed the study of pre-modern, non-Western and postcolonial relations to the past, which may invoke other conceptions of history and often rely on other means than representation to establish past-relationships. This critique could be extended to the study of the modern-day focus on “experience” in heritage education (Grever et al., 2012).
To counter these issues, we propose an inclusive concept of historical culture which does not rely on a classification of cultural (sub)domains of historical cultures, but on three levels of analysis which—in our view—enable an inclusive study of heterogeneous and dynamic relationships to the past. First, we discerned the actual historical narratives and performances—from popular to academic—through which the past gains meaning through emplotment and affection, that is, substantive historical interpretations in the form of myths, historiography, schoolbooks, travel guides, recounted memories, but also staged re-enactments and rituals. Second, these literal or symbolic articulations of relationships with the past rely on and in turn (re)define mnemonic infrastructures. This level of analysis refers to the social and cultural structures that maintain and constitute narrative and performative articulations about the past. These structures—from material to immaterial—in turn rely on historical (re)presen- tations to underline their social relevance through, for example, the suggestion of its historic continuity. Third, all historical cultures depend on specific conceptions of history—axiomatic understandings of how past, present and future are related to each other, including forms of (modern) historical consciousness.
We think that historical culture as a dynamic and inclusive concept of these three, mutually dependent and interactive levels of analysis supports the theorizing of history education research. Such a conception is useful in the context of contemporary multicultural classrooms, where students come from different religious and sociocultural backgrounds and increasingly encounter popular articulations of the past and use new media. Although reflection on the three levels, particularly on the conceptions of history which students from various cultures unconsciously bring into history classes, will not resolve the difficulties of constructing a critical, coherent and inclusive history curriculum in itself, we hope it will enhance a dialogue about the possibilities and the boundaries of a cross-cultural study of historical culture.