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Intangible Cultural Heritage And Its Presentation Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1863 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Intangible cultural heritage is a fairly recent term introduced by UNESCO in order to distinguish with tangible cultural heritage, which had been commonly known as cultural heritage as defined in the UNESCO 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. In its definition, the 1972 Convention considers monuments, groups of buildings, and sites as cultural heritage. Although the 1972 Convention is intended to provide an international legal framework for the protection of cultural monuments, cultural and natural sites, landscapes, its definition of cultural heritage excluded the intangible elements that also need to be considered as cultural heritage and protection (Seitel, 2001:6).

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In fact, the term intangible cultural heritage (ICH) was eventually chosen after almost two decade of debates and usage of a variety of terminologies. In 1989, with the adoption of the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, UNESCO used the term folklore to indicate ‘traditional and popular culture’ [1] (Sietel, 2001:8) in an attempt to foster protection efforts of these cultural forms. However, the Recommendation received little interest from State Parties in its application for the reason that it ‘gives neither specific mandate to UNESCO nor any explanation of how it should be implemented.’ (Sietel, 2001:13). Use of the term folklore also received criticism and was requested for an alternative because of its ‘pejorative connotation’ in several regions (Africa, Pacific, Latin America) (Sietel, 2001:40). The term intangible cultural heritage was introduced only after several review programs by UNESCO in early 1990s that evaluated the application of the Recommendation and reviewed of other terms, such as non-physical heritage, immaterial patrimony (Sietel, 2001:14, 235), etc. The evaluation by UNESCO also suggested either revision of the 1989 Recommendation or development of a new international instrument on the protection of living cultures.

In 2003, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage which defines ICH as

‘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 intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.’ (UNESCO, 2003:2).

By introducing five categories, known as the ICH domains, other than listing its forms as seen in the 1989 Recommendation, the UNESCO’s 2003 definition covers a more inclusive scope of living traditions:

‘(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and (e) traditional craftsmanship.’ (UNESCO, 2003:2)

The debates on the terminology as well as the categorization of ICH reflect the complexity of the heritage itself and the challenge commonly found in any attempt to define and classify elements that constantly evolve and take diverse forms. As well, these categories should be understood as a flexible reference when applying to a specific item. As one ICH may fall into more than one domain, although some of its characteristics might be more visible than others. Being different from tangible heritage, the identification and classification of ICH may introduce the risk of decontextualization of a tradition from the cultural setting that it is being part of. Take wedding music of the Khmer in Vietnam as an example. This tradition can be categorized as a music tradition and it falls into the performing arts category (domain (b)). However, these musical repertoires and melodies can only played simultaneously in response to ritual proceedings being carried out at wedding ceremonies. The music is thus part of a social practice (domain (c)) and cannot be treated as an independent entity. This is especially important when it comes to preservation of such traditions.

In comparison to the 1989 Recommendation, the 2003 Convention introduces a more concrete definition of ICH with an indication that the intangible heritages are living elements that embed within the human, represent them and are passed along as they evolve. This is an important aspect in UNESCO’s concept as it emphasizes the living nature and continuous transmission of the knowledge and skills in connection with the source communities and their sense of cultural identity. The role and involvement of the concerned communities are particularly emphasized in the articulate use of such key terms ‘recognize’, ‘transmit’, and ‘constantly recreate’ (see definition above). This shows that UNESCO sees ICH as being both traditional and contemporary elements.

The primary purpose for the establishment of the 2003 Convention is ‘to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage’. Safeguarding, according to the Convention, is defined as the:

‘measures aimed at ensuring the viability of the intangible cultural heritage, 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 such heritage.’ (UNESCO, 2003:2)

In this sense of safeguarding, the Convention calls for ‘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’ (UNESCO, 2003:7). However, in practice, it remains a challenge of how the cultural communities be able to get involved in these measures owing the degree of professionalism and expertise involved.

In summary, intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is a newly developed term by a UNESCO convention evolved from the use of various equivalences to indicate folklore and living cultures. ICH is a living element and takes diverse forms. In definition, intangible cultural heritage is ‘the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills’ ‘that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage’ and ‘transmitted from generation to generation’, ‘constantly recreated by communities and groups’, and ‘provides them with a sense of identity and continuity’. UNESCO introduces five domains of ICH, which should be understood and considered with flexibility when it comes to identifying and safeguarding. The safeguarding of ICH may include one or more measures which should involve the participation of the source communities that create, maintain and transmit such heritage.

Defining ‘folklife’ in relation to ICH (in progress)

Although the Smithsonian Institution adopted folklife as the material for its annual festival, since 1967, the term “folklife” was officially defined not until

In 1976, the US Congress defines the term “folklife” as the following:

‘ “American folklife” means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction;’ (Public law, 1976).

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Since its establishment, set out with a goal “to strengthen and preserve these traditions by presenting them” (Festival 101, 2009), the Festival has created a distinction of the concept of folklife. It has ‘problematized static notions of tradition and heritage by defining folklife as dynamic, inclusive and contemporary’ and ‘has further expanded the gloss of the term “folklife” by including elite cultural genres in its international programs’ (Diamond & Trimillos, 2008:3). Diamond Heather and Trimillos Ricardo (2008:4) remark that the Festival and its diversity in

Thus, choosing ‘folklife’ as the material for its expositions, the Festival deals with two primary aspects: culture as heritage and culture as a living entity.

Defining ‘living presentation’ of ICH (in progress)

Living presentation, according to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

The concept and setting of “living presentations”, intended to enable the subjects – peoples who make their own cultures – present, give their voices, and dialogue with the public, somehow make the Festival distinctive by its liveliness and “realness” compared to other forms of museum exhibition.

According to Richard Kurin (1997:117), the unique feature of the Festival is “its attempt to foreground the voices of tradition bearers as they demonstrate, discuss, and present their cultures”. Demonstration is thus the core activity in the presentation at the Festival.

In these demonstrations, “cultural practitioners speak for themselves, with each other, and to the public” (CFCH, 2009c). These framed presentations enable and encourage visitors to participate in the participants: they can ask questions, talk, sing, dance, taste, and get engaged in their activities.

Presentations by festival participants are usually arranged in a somewhat “casual” manner that is intended to abridge the physical boundary between the subject and the audience. Participants “exhibit” their cultural traditions by performing and demonstrating them, talking and explaining to the audience about their knowledge and skills. In this form of communication, visitors not only learn from the subjects but also experience with them, thus valorizing similarities and differences between them.

Although there is no universal frame for presenting the traditions, which vary in genre and form of expressions, the pre-existing and unchanging physical setting of the National Mall as decides

The Festival as a forms of presentation of ICH (in progress)


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