Sub-regional Capacity-Building Workshop on the Implementation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

Basic challenges of sustaining intangible heritage

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Basic challenges of sustaining intangible heritage

Frank Proschan

Intangible Cultural Heritage Section

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage came into force on 20 June 2006, barely one thousand days after its adoption by the UNESCO General Conference on 17 October 2003. It has been ratified at an unprecedented pace, with the number of States that have ratified now more than 90, and it is very likely that in 2008 more than half of UNESCO’s 193 Member States will have joined. The Convention’s rapid entry into force is a testament to the international community’s concern for safeguarding the world’s living heritage, especially at a time of rapid sociocultural change and international economic integration.

Intangible heritage defines the identities of communities and groups and gives meaning to their lives. The Convention takes a broad view of intangible heritage: it is ”the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage”. This last phrase is crucial: indeed, it is only the community itself that can decide whether or not something is part of its heritage—no scholar, expert or official can do so in their stead. It is also a fundamental tenet of the Convention that no hierarchy can be assigned to distinguish one community’s intangible heritage as better, more valuable, more important or more interesting than the heritage of any other community. To every community or group, each element of its intangible heritage has value that can neither be quantified nor compared to other elements of other communities’ heritage: each is equally valuable, in and of itself, to the communities, groups or individuals that recognize it as part of their heritage.
The Convention conceives intangible heritage as a phenomenon always being created and recreated, transmitted from generation to generation or shared from one community to another. In the Convention’s words, it “is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history”. This means that intangible heritage, as conceived in the Convention, must always be living heritage: it must continue to be actively produced, maintained, re-created and safeguarded by the communities, groups or individuals concerned, or it simply ceases to be heritage. As a living phenomenon, intangible heritage derives from the past and may often evoke it, but it is always inevitably of the present and future. Intangible heritage does not live in archives or museums, libraries or monuments: rather, it lives only in the minds and bodies of human beings. There is no folklore without the folk, we often said at my previous organization, the Smithsonian Institution, and equally there is no intangible heritage without the communities and individuals who are its bearers, stewards and guardians.
To safeguard intangible cultural heritage, in the Convention’s terms, is to ensure its viability, especially by strengthening the processes of creativity, transmission and mutual respect upon which it depends. That is why I said a moment ago that living heritage is always of the present and future. Of the present, because it exists only when it is being actively produced and re-created; of the future because it imposes upon us the burden of ensuring its transmission to future generations. This last burden is one that the international community is increasingly willing to accept, as shown by the Convention. If sustainable development, as defined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”1, sustaining intangible heritage means ensuring that it continues to be practiced today without compromising the ability of coming generations to enjoy it in the future.
The Convention’s primary purpose, as laid out in its Article 1, is “to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage”. In Article 2, the Convention provides a definition of safeguarding—to ensure the viability of intangible heritage, as I already mentioned—and lays out a number of possible safeguarding measures, “including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of [intangible] heritage”. But I must emphasize that all of these possibilities are indeed safeguarding measures if, and only if, they are “aimed at ensuring the viability of the intangible cultural heritage”, as the Convention specifies. Documentation for its own sake, or simply to record something before it vanishes, is not safeguarding; research to satisfy the scientific curiosity of researchers or to determine the origin, contours or specificity of a given element of intangible heritage is not safeguarding unless and until it contributes directly to strengthening the viability of that heritage. The best-equipped archive, the most extensive database, or the most dazzling interactive website can only be considered to be safeguarding when it can be demonstrated that it supports the future practice and transmission of the heritage that is stored within.
Today, even in a world of mass communication and global cultural flows, many forms of living heritage are thriving, in every country and every corner of the world. Other forms and elements are more fragile, and some even endangered, and that is where the kind of measures called for by the Convention—at the national and international levels—can help communities to ensure that their heritage remains available to their descendants for decades and centuries to come. The Convention recognizes that the communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals who practice and maintain intangible heritage must be its primary stewards and guardians, but their efforts can be supported—or undercut—by State policies and institutions. The challenges facing such communities, and those who work on their behalf, are to ensure that their children and grandchildren continue to have the opportunity to experience the heritage of the generations that preceded them, and that measures intended to safeguard such heritage are carried out with the full involvement and the free, prior and informed consent of the communities, groups and individuals concerned.
How can this best be accomplished? Let us look more closely at the mechanisms that the Convention puts in place for safeguarding heritage at the national and international levels, and how UNESCO expects to work with Member States and communities to implement those mechanisms. The Convention itself has two statutory organs: first is the General Assembly of the States Parties to the Convention, the sovereign body of the Convention that includes all of the States that are party to it, and meets biennially to take decisions on broad policy matters. The implementation of the Convention at a concrete, operational level is the responsibility of the Convention’s second statutory body, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, composed of 24 States Members elected by the General Assembly. States Members elected to the Committee are represented by “persons who are qualified in the various fields of the intangible cultural heritage”, Article 6.7 concludes. The General Assembly and Committee are assisted in their work by the UNESCO Secretariat, responsible for preparing documents for their consideration and ensuring the implementation of their decisions.
The Convention’s Article 11 lays out the responsibility of States at the national level, in very broad terms: each State Party shall “take the necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory”. Articles 11 and 12 further specify one clear and concrete responsibility of each State Party: to “identify and define the various elements of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory, with the participation of communities, groups and relevant non-governmental organizations”. This process of identification and definition is to be done “with a view to safeguarding” and is to result in “one or more inventories of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory”, to be drawn up by each State Party “in a manner geared to its own situation”, and to be updated regularly.
Inventorying is the most concrete obligation of States Parties, but in no sense is it more important than the general responsibilities laid out elsewhere in the Convention, and it should not be understood as in any sense a preliminary step that must be completed before other safeguarding measures can begin to be implemented. Indeed, several expert meetings and the Intergovernmental Committee have emphasized that the work of inventorying is never completed—rather, it is an ongoing process of identification and updating that can never be considered as final. As Article 11 emphasizes, inventorying must be done with the participation of the communities or groups concerned, since it is only they who can determine if an element is or is not part of its intangible heritage. It is not researchers or documentalists from the capital city who should decide alone what belongs on an inventory—it is the communities, groups or individuals whose heritage is involved who must play a primary role.
Where, you might ask, are UNESCO’s instructions and forms for inventorying? A number of Member States regularly pose that question to us. I am not simply being evasive when I say that we do not—and will not in the future—have such binding guidelines, instructions or formats for how an inventory should be accomplished. Indeed, because it is for each State Party to draw up one or more inventories, in a manner geared to its own situation, UNESCO cannot provide instructions to States how they should go about accomplishing their task. This does not mean we are not willing to provide assistance and support to Member States, but that we expect those States, with the active participation of communities, groups and NGOs, to decide for themselves how best to go about this effort.
Let me offer an example that I am most familiar with. The Government of Viet Nam has gone about this process in a careful and deliberate manner, assisted along the way by UNESCO, to offer one example. Since the 1930s, Vietnamese institutions have been drawing up intangible heritage inventories, and the last thing the Convention would encourage is that Viet Nam begin inventorying anew without taking careful stock of the experience accumulated over those decades. So, we have supported a self-study where Vietnamese researchers have examined the experience of six different institutions or provinces that have carried out inventories, especially in the last decade or so since State support on an expanded scale has been made available for such efforts. That self-study is producing some very important insights into the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to inventorying, and will be examined next month in an intensive workshop, with several international experts meeting together with Vietnamese colleagues. From that analysis and discussion, Vietnamese policy-makers and implementing institutions can decide together how best to build upon their accumulated experience in inventory-making and ensure that future efforts are carried out effectively and always “with a view to safeguarding”, as the Convention requires.
UNESCO has also been able, with the support of the Government of Norway, to support a safeguarding plan for the gong culture of the Central Highlands, one of the heritage elements proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005. That safeguarding effort began this past August with a very innovative training workshop in developing community-based and artist-driven inventories of the gong culture of one province, Dak Nong Province. In that workshop, cultural officials from the province, district and commune levels worked together with six expert gong players to decide how to proceed with their province-wide inventory. Such bottoms-up approaches to inventorying are the ones the Convention would like to see, and UNESCO stands ready to assist where possible in their elaboration.
The Convention also calls upon States Parties to endeavour to safeguard their living heritage through a number of other measures. One is to ”adopt a general policy aimed at promoting the function of the intangible cultural heritage in society, and at integrating the safeguarding of such heritage into planning programmes”. Will States do so in such a manner as to promote the social functions of heritage and especially to ensure its safeguarding? One reading of the Convention would be that development planning that is not driven by the watchword of sustainability, and that does not ensure the safeguarding of intangible heritage, would violate a State’s treaty obligations under the Convention. It remains to be seen whether and how, in the future, the communities, groups or individuals concerned with specific forms of intangible heritage might be able—perhaps together with concerned research institutions and nongovernmental organizations—to effectively make reference to this obligation to advocate in favour of certain planning alternatives or in opposition to others, just as communities and organizations have sometimes mobilized arguments in favour of preservation of natural and tangible heritage as a counter-balance to development plans that would negatively affect the heritage values of a given site.
At the institutional level, States Parties are to create or support several kinds of organizations or offices. Each State should designate or establish one or more competent bodies with responsibility for safeguarding. Most States already have such offices, agencies or organizations in place. Each State is also to foster the creation or strengthening of institutions for training in managing and transmitting intangible heritage, the latter particularly by creating spaces in which heritage may be practiced and performed in order to encourage its transmission. States are also to establish institutions to support documentation for safeguarding. Further, the Convention requires, States are to ”foster scientific, technical and artistic studies, as well as research methodologies, with a view to effective safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage, in particular the intangible cultural heritage in danger”.
Among the other important obligations of States Parties at the national level, the Convention gives great importance to education, awareness-raising, and capacity-building aimed at ensuring ”recognition of, respect for, and enhancement of the intangible cultural heritage in society”. The Convention outlines a broad range of educational programmes and activities each State should undertake, aimed at the general public and particularly at the young, both within heritage-bearing communities and outside. Such public education and awareness-raising is one of the fundamental purposes of the Convention, both an end in itself and a means to ensure respect for intangible heritage and appreciation of its importance.
Before leaving the national responsibilities of States Parties under the Convention, I want to call your attention to Article 15, which emphasizes that “Within the framework of its safeguarding activities of the intangible cultural heritage, each State Party shall endeavour to ensure the widest possible participation of communities, groups and, where appropriate, individuals that create, maintain and transmit such heritage, and to involve them actively in its management”. I have already mentioned that in its definition of intangible heritage, the Convention insists that only the communities or groups concerned can determine what they consider to be their heritage, and in speaking of inventories I recalled the emphasis the Convention places on their involvement. But here the Convention lays out a much deeper and all-encompassing obligation of States to ensure their widest possible participation in its safeguarding. To take that obligation seriously, and to fully embrace the spirit of the Convention’s requirement, means that States may have to rethink many of their standard assumptions about cultural policy, heritage management, and the role of communities.
Now, if communities are the primary agents responsible for safeguarding heritage, and if the Convention also lays out certain obligations of States at the national level, it also foresees a role for international cooperation and assistance to complement those efforts. The Convention establishes two lists and one register. Of the two lists, the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding responds directly to the Convention’s primary purpose, to safeguard intangible heritage. At the proposal of States Parties, the Committee may inscribe elements of intangible heritage on that list whose viability is at risk despite the efforts of the community, group or, if applicable, individuals and State(s) Party(ies) concerned. According to the draft procedures recommended by the Intergovernmental Committee for approval by the General Assembly, the candidacy files for inscription on the Urgent Safeguarding List require the nominating State to present a safeguarding plan for helping to ensure the viability of the element. Once such an element is inscribed, the State may be eligible to receive international financial assistance for its safeguarding, from the Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund established by the Convention. In cases of extreme urgency, the Committee may take the initiative itself to inscribe an element, in consultation with the State Party concerned. The Committee has recommended that such an extraordinary procedure be used when “The element is in extremely urgent need of safeguarding because it is facing grave threats as a result of which it cannot be expected to survive without immediate safeguarding”.
The other list, the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, responds to the Convention’s goals of ensuring visibility of intangible heritage and awareness of its significance, and encouraging dialogue that respects cultural diversity. The Representative List is likely to include intangible heritage elements whose viability is comparatively strong. Here, rather than a safeguarding plan aimed at restoring or strengthening its viability, the Committee is recommending that States be asked to provide a management plan. Experts and the Committee have emphasized that even a healthy element, once listed, may be subject to new pressures such as vastly increased tourism, and the management plan is intended to ensure that a healthy element from the Representative List does not have to be moved to the Urgent Safeguarding List as an unintended consequence of being inscribed on the list.
Finally, the Convention’s third direct mechanism for safeguarding at the international level is a register or list of programmes, projects and activities for safeguarding ICH that best reflect the principles and objectives of the Convention. States may nominate exemplary programmes, projects and activities for international recognition as “good practices” in safeguarding, so that other concerned communities, groups and institutions may draw lessons from their experience. To support such programmes and activities, and especially to support safeguarding measures for intangible heritage that has been inscribed on the Urgent Safeguarding List, the Convention provides for international assistance from the Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund that is made up of the annual contributions of States Parties. Such international assistance include both financial assistance and technical assistance of various sorts, that time does not permit us to discuss at length today.
The challenges of safeguarding intangible heritage are immense, and the mechanisms established by the Convention are only now taking shape. Draft operational directives will be submitted for approval to the General Assembly when it meets in June 2008. Assuming that it adopts a full set of operational directives, the Convention will be fully operational within the next twelve months. The obligations that are taken on by States that ratify the Convention are broad, and only time will tell how effectively they discharge their responsibilities. UNESCO stands ready to assist all Member States in their safeguarding efforts, when they are undertaken in the spirit of the Convention. That means always with the fullest possible participation of the communities, groups or individuals for whom a given practice, expression or skill is identified as a part of their intangible heritage. They are its owners and stewards, and in the end it is only they who can guarantee that their children and grandchildren will continue to have access to the accumulated wisdom and experience of their parents and grandparents.

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