How might historical perspectives assist the goal of improving humanitarian responses? This introduction to a special issue of Disasters on the history of humanitarian action explores this question and outlines how the other submissions to the edition, each with its own approach and focus area from the nineteenth-century to the present today, make different contributions to understanding of humanitarian action. The paper argues that the value of history lies not so much in the information it might offer, but in the challenges it can pose to habitual ways of thinking and in the skills of investigation and interpretation it fosters. These attributes make historical perspectives a potentially valuable addition to the critical questioning of humanitarian practitioners and policymakers. The paper advocates integrating history into a more reflective attitude to change and a more adventurous and holistic approach to innovation, as opposed to simply using it to ‘learn lessons’.