World Heritage
World Heritage

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World Heritage

2.4.3 Intangible heritage

The ICH is traditional and living at the same time.

(UNESCO, 2008b)

This brings us to another category, the ‘non-material’ intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which recognises the importance of living heritage, cultural diversity and its maintenance for the future as ‘a guarantee for continuing creativity’. It came about because of criticism from countries with significant oral, folklore and other cultural traditions where indigenous people thought the list dominated by built or material heritage. According to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, it is seen in what UNESCO describes as the following ‘domains’:

  • oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage
  • performing arts (such as traditional music, dance and theatre)
  • social practices, rituals and festive events
  • knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
  • traditional craftsmanship.
(UNESCO, 2008b)

Such heritage can be seen in the practices, representatives, expression, knowledge and skills that committees, groups and individuals define as part of their cultural heritage. Perhaps rather optimistically UNESCO sees ICH being transmitted from generation to generation, repeated in response to environment, the nature of its history, promoting identity and continuity, respecting cultural diversity and human creativity (as well as human rights), and promoting respect and sustainable development among communities.

Much is transmitted orally and practised collectively, and tradition bearers often have important roles. The open-ended nature of ICH means it is often the most endangered component in World Heritage due to globalisation and the relative lack of interest among the young, language being a prime example. Moreover, ICH is not necessarily fixed to specific communities, groups or individuals, because it can switch from one context to another. All of this raises significant issues as to what ICH actually is and how representative examples can be, but nevertheless several significant initiatives have been undertaken including listings, identifying ICH requiring ‘urgent safeguarding’ and a number of projects mainly focused on developing countries. Beyond these, steps to identify Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity got underway following a proclamation at the UNESCO General Conference in 1997 (see Harrison and Rose, 2010). Between 2001 and 2005, ninety outstanding examples of ICH were identified, including a wide range of phenomena similar to those described above.

One domain that has attracted particular attention is the safeguarding of endangered languages. This programme revealed some staggering and damning statistics about languages as tools of communication and views of the world. About 50 per cent of the world’s 6700 languages are in danger of disappearing. Moreover 96 per cent of the languages are spoken by 4 per cent of the global population; one language disappears every two weeks and 80 per cent of African languages have no orthography. UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage division supports an Endangered Languages Programme which aims to promote and protect linguistic diversity by such activities as assessing the extent of endangerment, raising awareness about the issues through publications and events, promoting community-based safeguarding projects particularly in Sub-Sahara Africa, and identifying good practice for the preservation of threatened languages and related cultures. A convention similar to that for cultural and natural heritages became operational in 2000.

Some work has also been done in developed countries where older and increasingly marginalised languages have been swamped by majority cultures. These cultures are being promoted in a whole range of contexts, the Celtic languages being an interesting case, seen, for example, in Brittany, Galicia, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and the Scottish Highlands and Islands. In the last, the Scottish government has supported a project led by the Scottish Museums Council to assess the scope of ICH in Scotland, in particular the position of Gaelic language and culture, which is undergoing a revival.

Defining ICH is no easy matter; like serial and linear sites, it is transnational, and crosses political boundaries, cultures, kin groups and languages. It embraces a wide range of social practices, popular cultures and skills of many kinds. It is also dynamic, and though it derives much from the past (as do most other heritages), it is ‘living’ heritage. Hence, its vibrancy in many contexts needs to be contrasted with decline in others, raising many problems of record, preservation and promotion.


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