Historical Significance

Learning Objectives

  • Identify how historical significance is defined and interpreted

Historical significance examines the long-term importance of an event. What is considered important can change depending on the context. Oftentimes, the historical events believed to be the most significant are those considered important at the time in which they happened. They are the kinds of events that affected a lot of people, and affected them deeply. They lead to other important events or still affect attitudes and beliefs today.

As we will see in this Historical Hack, historical interpretation is not an exact science, but a changing and evolving understanding of the import of a key event or movement. To help us orient ourselves as we begin, first watch the video below.

Watch It

Determining the historical significance of an event may seem unclear and a little daunting. What exactly are we looking for when we gauge “significance?” This video gives us some questions we can ask when we consider how significant an event in the past might be.

Try It

As we are going to see, historians don’t always agree on what historical significance is, let alone what makes a particular event historically significant. The video we watched puts forward four criteria for gauging historical significance:

  • N: Novelty: Is there something unprecedented about this event?
  • A: Applicability: What’s the relevance for us?
  • M: Memory: How is something remembered by people?
  • E: Effect: how many people have been impacted, and how deep does that impact go? For example, the collapse of the Apartheid system in South Africa in the early 1990s impacted virtually everyone living in the country at the time, which changes ranging from the political and economic to the social and cultural.

NAME the Significance

Briefly, can you think of something you have studied so far in this course that would fit for each of these four forms of historical significance?

What is something that is historically significant because it is novel, or unprecedented?

What is something that is particularly applicable– that is, it has a special relevance to us today?

What is something that is significant because it endures in people’s memory– either the memory of those in the past or the memory of those of us today?

What is something that has a sizable effect– with lots of people impacted very seriously?

This isn’t the only take on the matter, of course. One historian, Christine Counsell, uses the mnemonic of “The Five R’s” to understand the nature of historical significance. These are:

  1. Remarkable:  The event or development was literally remarkable–in the sense that it was remarked upon by people at the time or afterward. Alternatively, it could be unusual, beyond the realm of normal life.
  2. Remembered: The event or development was important at some stage in history within the collective memory of a group or groups.
  3. Revealing: It reveals something noteworthy about that time period or challenges us to consider an unexpected aspect of the past.
  4. Resonant: it is possible to connect with experiences, beliefs, or situations we experience today.
  5. Resulting in Change: It had consequences for the future.[1]

Assessing Significance

Let’s take the 5R’s and turn them into a ranking activity by giving each R a score on a five-point scale. How significant was the Kennedy assassination?

  1. The event was remarkable and newsworthy.  5 /5
  2. The event has been remembered 5 /5
  3. The event is revealing /5
  4. The event is resonant and still connects to the experiences, beliefs, or situations that we experience today.  5 /5
  5. The event resulted in change.  /5


This is a speculative activity, so your responses could differ, but here’s one possible explanation:

I would assign 5 points to remarkable, remembered, and resonant. The assassination dominated U.S. news for months and is remembered vividly, and sometimes traumatically, by nearly every American able to recall the event. Moreover, Kennedy’s death still generates interest today, and violent deaths of political figures are frequently likened to the president’s assassination. Perhaps a smaller score, such as 3, might be assigned to “revealing” and “resulting in change.” The killing had a somewhat atypical nature, where a “lone wolf” shot Kennedy, and although the assassination made Lyndon Johnson president, it is not entirely clear how much direct change resulted from this transition of presidential power.

An event can be of personal, rather than general historical significance. To help understand different ways that historical significance can be assessed, let’s start by delving into your own history.


Start by taking 4 minutes to brainstorm some significant events in your life– pick whatever you like, so long as you can actually remember them (so something like, say, your birth or your first steps probably wouldn’t be a valid answer.)

Once you have done this, select the five events that you feel are the most significant in your life.

Reflect upon what makes these five events significant for you. Do any of these align with how our video or Christine Counsell understands historical significance?

For example, is there something that you didn’t consider significant at the time it was happening, but only slowly realized its impact as you grew older? Or something that had a great impact on your future? Or something unprecedented, which you hadn’t done before?

Readers of history often make decisions about which events are the most significant and worthy of study and consideration. There are simply too many historical events to put the same weight on every historical event. For this reason, we choose those that are most novel, most noteworthy, or most applicable to the time period or event being studied. For example, if you are writing a paper about women in sports, then Wilma Rudolph, an international sports icon in track and field and Olympian in the 1950s and 60s is going to be a significant player. If you are researching the Vietnam War, however, she will not be significant to your research. Which events are most significant sometimes change throughout history. Before 2020, we had known about the global flu epidemic of 1918, but its significance changed because of the greater value the study of this pandemic has to navigating the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

Try It

Can you think of some events from the 1960s that might have had their significance change in the light of things that happened afterward? For example, the Soviet Union’s invasion of an increasingly democratically-minded Czechoslovakia in 1968 might become more relevant in the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion into Ukraine.


historical significance: an assessment made about the long-term importance of an event. While significance is often gauged by people looking back at a historical event, sometimes participants or eyewitnesses weigh in on historical significance as well.

  1. 'Tales of significance', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/historical-concepts/historical-significance-tales-significance, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 11-Aug-2021