Q&A: Safeguarding Intangible Heritage

UNESCO Convention for the The Serbian National Folk Dance Ensemble Kolo. Image: Laslovarga/Wikimedia
Friday 10 August 2018

The need to protect and preserve material heritage around the world was recognised and sanctified by UNESCO in 1972 with the enactment of the World Heritage Convention. The argument that intangible cultural heritage is something that likewise needs protection and support for preservation took longer to take hold.

A new book co-edited by Dr Natsuko Akagawa, from the University of Queensland, and Professor Laurajane Smith, Head of the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, looks at how intangible cultural heritage has been defined and managed nationally and internationally, and the complications of "safeguarding" such heritage. Safeguarding Intangible Heritage also examines the implications of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, enacted in 2006.

Professor Smith, who is also Director of the Centre for Museum and Heritage Studies within the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, works in the area of heritage studies. She is editor of the International Journal of Heritage Studies and series general editor with Professor William Logan of Key Issues in Cultural Heritage (Routledge). Prior to arriving at the ANU in 2010, she held the position of Reader in heritage studies at the University of York, UK, where she directed the MA in Cultural Heritage Management for nine years. Originally from Sydney, she taught Indigenous Studies at the University of New South Wales (1995-2000), and heritage and archaeology at Charles Sturt University (1990-1995). She also worked as a heritage consultant in south-eastern Australia during the 1980s.

Why do organisations and governments seek to have items of intangible cultural heritage listed through the convention?
Sometimes national parties will list materials because it’s important for national projects. Others might do it because they think it’s important to preserve diversity. Community groups can advocate for listing as it identifies their heritage as something that’s noteworthy. Others want it identified and to be put on the safeguarding list to attract the attention that what they value is under threat. So there are a range of reasons why people and community groups and nations might seek to put intangible heritage on the various intangible heritage lists.

At the moment, the intangible heritage list is heavily dominated by China. On the World Heritage list, China also currently has the second most listings behind Italy. 

Why does intangible cultural heritage need to be safeguarded? What are some threats to its existence or continuance?
The idea of intangible cultural heritage is something that has been debated for a very long time. In 1972, UNESCO enacted the World Heritage Convention, which brought everyone’s attention to material heritage such as the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, the cathedrals of Europe and so on, as well as natural heritage such as the Great Barrier Reef.

That was built on the belief that these were endangered by pollution, human activity, and visitors to some of these fragile sites. It followed concerns that emerged from WWII that these things were fragile and needed protection.

At that time, it was argued that we need to consider intangible heritage as well. To a very real extent, UNESCO at that time couldn’t get around the idea that there could be intangible heritage. It took over 30 years of lobbying, particularly by countries from Asia, Africa and Indigenous people, to make the argument that heritage should not just be understood as tangible things. Intangible heritage includes such elements as the stories people tell, music, dance, puppetry, opera – even workplace experiences, knowledge of craft and so on are valuable and necessary to acknowledge and protect. 

Intangible heritage could also be regarded as endangered for a range of reasons – particularly in cases where community groups fear that their narratives and identities could be engulfed by national narratives, or become lost or appropriated by dominant groups in a society. Other concerns raised have included the over commercialisation of heritage, such as current debates over Batik in Indonesia. The holders of the knowledge of how Batik is done and the meanings of Batik can, it is feared, become lost in the commercialisation process. Intangible heritage can also be regarded as endangered when there aren’t interested people to pass it along to. 

But the convention also argued that we should not just be worried about endangered intangible heritage; we should recognise that there is intangible heritage that simply needs to be acknowledged and celebrated for what it is. So, the 2003 convention creates a number of lists of intangible heritage that’s in danger and what the international community just wants to celebrate and acknowledge.

The intangible cultural heritage convention came into being in 2003 and was ratified in 2006. Dr Natsuko Akagawa and I edited another book, Intangible Heritage, that looked at the history of the development of this Convention and its implications. The current book, published nine years later, looks at how the convention has been put into practice, in particular with respect to the ways in which practices have been enacted to safeguard heritage which community groups who own that heritage see as being in need of safeguarding. 

How does one protect or preserve intangible heritage?
It’s one of the big issues – with material heritage, it’s particularly easy to identify how to protect something. You can draw boundaries around it and identify physical threats. But with intangible heritage, it’s much more nebulous and harder to comprehend as an idea, let alone how we protect it, or even if we should protect it. Intangible heritage is something that is dynamic and changeable, culturally vital – and in that vitality it is ever-changing; it’s not something you can put a frame around to say here is the intangible heritage and here it shall forever remain, as tends to be done with material heritage. 

So, safeguarding is something that is complicated and one of the core issues is how is intangible heritage protected so that it remains meaningful to the people who practice it. It is also vital that those who practice it are also in control of the ways in which that heritage is practiced and the meanings that are constructed out of it. Somewhat paradoxically, that sense of control is jeopardised by the UNESCO intangible heritage convention itself; it sets up a whole range of contradictory issues and practices over both listing and safeguarding. One of the most important contradictions is that the Convention privileges sub-national community groups, but yet the Convention has to be administered by Nation States, this fact can set up some significant tensions. This book is part of the debate that picks apart those contradictions and tensions. 

The book looks at what happens to intangible heritage following its listing, what happens as it moves from the community into the national and then international arena through the listing process. Communities, for whom this convention was supposedly written, can risk the loss of control they have over practices. And that’s certainly happened in particular national contexts where local heritage suddenly becomes something that’s seen as national heritage. This wasn’t the intention of the convention, but it is one scenario that has occurred. 

So, with safeguarding intangible heritage, there is no quick fix. There is no recipe book that says we need to do X and Y in the same way that it is assumed there can be with tangible heritage, where we have an extensive literature on management strategies and conservation plans. Formulistic approaches are not going to work with intangible heritage. Intangible heritage, by definition, has to be community-driven in the ways in which it is safeguarded and protected. Which is oppositional to the ways in which material heritage is protected, as that’s driven by experts – heritage managers, museum curators, archaeologists, architects and so forth. I would add that that is not a good way for tangible heritage to be managed either, but that is a different argument. 

Neither Australia, the UK, the US, or Switzerland are signatories of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Would you mind outlining why?
In the case of the UK, it was very much a case of they didn’t understand what intangible heritage could be. To a certain extent, it may also be – my interpretation – a sense in which Westminster/England didn’t necessarily want to privilege heritage as it was understood in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, where the idea of intangible heritage is far more easily comprehended. Quite possibly it’s tied up with the political issues over devolution in the UK.

In Australia, the US and Canada there are a range of issues. But one significant one is Indigenous heritage and a discomfort over privileging Indigenous heritage. Indigenous people internationally were one of the groups lobbying for this convention. In the US it ties up with a whole range of other issues regarding copyright over cultural knowledge, IP rights, and so on, but the Indigenous issue in those three countries is a significant reason why we are not a signatory to the convention and why we still are not signatories. 

The book itself appears to be intended for students and those working in the greater field of heritage and museum studies and conservation. How do you think the ideas or arguments raised are relevant to a broader audience?
The whole idea of intangible heritage, and one of the key reasons that many Western European Countries (even those who are now signatories), North America and Australia had a problem with the Convention was the realisation that intangible heritage speaks to a wider sense, a more inclusive sense, of heritage than more traditional ideas of heritage as historic buildings, archaeological sites and the like. The idea that heritage is primarily material is currently embedded in Australian legislation and public policy – the idea that heritage belongs in museums, or is represented by monuments, or the bricks and mortar of historic houses and so on is one that is dominate in public policy and professional practice. But material heritage is only one aspect of heritage. And it is an aspect of heritage that may not necessarily make as much sense to the majority of the population as it does to heritage and museum professionals. 

We all engage in intangible heritage whether we are participating in a festival or sitting across the dining room table from our grandparents and listening to familial stories, or looking through family photographs, or learning to cook family recipes and so on – that’s heritage as much as going to the Australian War Memorial or going to visit Calthorpe’s house in Canberra or whatever. The intangible aspects of heritage speak to a person’s sense of identity. And what the Intangible Heritage Convention does, is it allows us to recognise that heritage can be big and wonderful and glorious and monumental; but it can also be everyday, it can be the stories we tell each other and it can be in oral histories, family history, community histories and so forth. The local and familial can be just as important as the national. 

Any final thoughts on this?
How do you safeguard something that is dynamic and inherently changing? That’s the debate we explore in the book.

Safeguarding Intangible Heritage is edited by Dr Natsuko Akagawa and Professor Laurajane Smith and published by Routledge.

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