Living Identities: Intangible Cultural Heritage

Spanish Human Tower (Vimeo)

By Renard Teipelke

Imagine the following situation: A city needs a new or extended piece of infrastructure and as a result it has to deal with the World Heritage status of a corresponding place/building/structure. Often big fights come with the discussion about what to do with the World Heritage Site once it stands in perceived or actual conflict with urban development necessities. On the other hand, the Intangible Cultural Heritage is much less under the spotlight. Both heritage labels are related to the UNESCO’s preservation work. The first label has received much attention in media and politics over the decades, the second label has just recently been framed into the international Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (adopted in 2003, came into force in 2006). More and more countries are ratifying the convention and the listed heritages exemplify a very different perspective on culture(s) and its protection and promotion.

Parthenon, Athens (The Travel World, 2011)A World Heritage Site (such as the Acropolis in Athens) is a nice thing; although, it has a rather external function and effect: A World Heritage Site attracts visitors. It also characterizes places. But it is pretty much concrete, stable, and static. On the other hand, an Intangible Cultural Heritage is nothing without people. Human activities and actions ‘make’ such a heritage – and constantly reproduce it. The list of Intangible Cultural Heritages ranges from place-/group-specific dances, songs, and performances to various crafts and skills. In some cases, an ignorant outsider might view an Intangible Cultural Heritage as people just coming together for doing something. However, this is exactly what makes an Intangible Cultural Heritage very relevant: It has a strong internal function and effect. Without any doubt, visitors like to enjoy ‘traditional’ shows performed by ethnic groups (particularly in front of World Heritage Sites…). But the actual activities of writing, speaking, cooking, singing, or moving in a certain style are a dynamic element that can hold together people of a specific background, particular interest, or shared identity.

Chinese Calligraphy (Asia Society)Viennese Coffee House Culture (Inoholics)The intangibility of these heritages makes their preservation challenging. While a World Heritage Site might need mortar to prevent its physical deterioration, an Intangible Cultural Heritage needs people for its existence. Telling from the growing list of such heritages, there seem to be enough people keen to preserve and foster their cultural foundations of working and living. Germany, for instance, started this year (2013) to collect applications for German Intangible Cultural Heritages and many people sent in proposals. What remains a challenge is to hold the various heritages on the list conceptually together to some degree. With examples such as the Argentine tango, Viennese coffee house culture, falconry, Chinese calligraphy, the Mediterranean diet, and Spain’s human towers, there are so many different cultural heritages that the list appears much less coherent than its counterpart, the World Heritage Site list. However, such a list might also prove that cultural heritage by definition is multi-faceted, highly diverse – and certainly worth to be protected and promoted. The next years will show in how far the label “Intangible Cultural Heritage” has helped to achieve these objectives.

Mediterranean Diet (Themedifastplan, 2013)Argentine Tango (Robert Frerck, Getty Images)

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3 Responses to Living Identities: Intangible Cultural Heritage

  1. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Enjoyed this article –
    Check out Scotlnd’s ICH / Living Culture Inventory undertaken by Edinburgh Napier University

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