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Contemporary vs. Historical: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 7, 2023
Contemporary refers to the present time, while historical pertains to the past, particularly in relation to significant events.

Key Differences

Contemporary is a term used to describe something that exists or is happening now. It's often used in relation to current events, trends, or the arts, reflecting the styles and ideas of the present day. Historical, in contrast, refers to the study or representation of the past, dealing with events, cultures, and people that existed before the present time. Both terms place subjects within a timeline, but each occupies a different point on that line.
When one speaks of contemporary art, for example, they're referring to work created by artists living today. Conversely, historical art would encompass works from bygone eras, telling us stories from a time we no longer inhabit. Contemporary art reflects modern society’s issues and aesthetics, while historical art provides a window into the lives and thoughts of previous generations. Each offers a unique perspective, one current and the other retrospective.
In literature, a contemporary novel is one written and set in the time of the author's own life. Historical literature, on the other hand, is set in the past, often focusing on specific historical figures or events. A contemporary narrative may address today’s social, political, or technological issues, whereas historical fiction re-imagines life from another era, potentially offering insights into how the past has shaped the present.
The understanding of contemporary politics involves current political leaders and issues that affect today's governance and society. Historical politics, however, examines political theories, practices, and problems of the past, offering context for current political systems. Though contemporary and historical politics are separated by time, they are interconnected; today’s political landscape is often a direct result of historical events and policies.
Architecture provides another clear distinction; contemporary architecture includes current building styles and technologies, focusing on innovation and sustainability. Historical architecture studies older buildings, often preserved for their cultural and aesthetic value, and is a record of architectural evolution. Both contemporary and historical architecture contribute to a society's cultural heritage, but they serve different purposes in the narrative of human progress.

Comparison Chart

Time Reference

Present time period.
Past time periods.


Current relevance and application.
Importance in understanding the past.


Artwork created by current artists.
Artwork from previous time periods.


Works written about or set in present.
Works set in or written about the past.


Modern practices and ideas.
Retrospective analysis of past events.


Buildings with modern design.
Buildings from historical eras.

Language Usage

Describes current age, style, or trend.
Relates to historical significance.

Contemporary and Historical Definitions


Existing or happening now.
Contemporary issues like climate change are crucial for discussion.


Relating to the study or representation of past events.
The museum's historical exhibits provide insight into the Civil War.


A person or thing living or existing at the same time as another.
He was a contemporary of George Washington.


Serving as a record of an event or time period.
They discovered historical documents that changed their understanding of the event.


Belonging to the same time.
Picasso and Matisse were contemporary artists.


Based on or reconstructed from an event, custom, style, etc., in the past.
The film is a historical drama about medieval Europe.


Characteristic of the present; modern.
The gallery specializes in contemporary art.


Having importance in or influence on history.
The historical significance of the discovery cannot be overstated.


Following the latest ideas or style.
The new building downtown has a contemporary design.


Belonging to the past, not modern.
The historical building was preserved as a national landmark.


Belonging to the same period of time
A fact documented by two contemporary sources.


Of or relating to history; concerned with past events
A historical account.


Of about the same age.


How is "contemporary" used to describe music?

It denotes music that is current and incorporates recent trends.

Can contemporary also mean modern?

Yes, contemporary can describe something modern or current.

Can something be contemporary and historical?

Yes, if it exists now but will be of historical significance.

What does historical mean?

Historical pertains to past events or periods.

Can historical refer to a period of time?

Yes, it can describe a specific era in the past.

Is historical fiction based on true events?

It may be inspired by true events but often includes imaginative elements.

Can an object be described as historical?

Yes, if it's from a previous era and has significance.

Is "contemporary" only related to art?

No, it can apply to any subject that is current, including technology, fashion, or politics.

Are contemporary sources primary sources?

They can be, if they provide direct evidence about the present.

Can buildings be contemporary?

Yes, if they feature current design trends and technologies.

What does contemporary mean?

Contemporary refers to something existing or occurring in the present time.

What is a historical narrative?

It's a story or account of past events.

Do contemporary artists reference history?

Many do, often to comment on current issues through a historical lens.

How do contemporary and historical perspectives differ?

Contemporary perspectives focus on current contexts, while historical perspectives consider past contexts.

Is it possible for a contemporary work to become historical?

Yes, as time passes, contemporary works can gain historical significance.

Does "historical" always mean accurate?

No, historical can sometimes refer to narratives or reconstructions that may not be entirely accurate.

Can history be contemporary?

The study of history can include recent events, but history is generally seen as the study of the past.

Why study historical documents?

To understand and interpret past events and cultures.

Are contemporary events important historically?

They may become important as they shape future historical perspectives.

What qualifies as a contemporary issue?

An issue that is currently affecting society or is relevant today.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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