Red social de Arqueologos e Historiadores
The Importance of the Intangible Cultural Heritage
Graciela Gestoso Singer
The term "cultural heritage " has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.
While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.
The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. The social and economic value of this transmission of knowledge is relevant for minority groups and for mainstream social groups within a State, and is as important for developing States as for developed ones.
Intangible cultural heritage is:
Traditional, contemporary and living at the same time: intangible cultural heritage does not only represent inherited traditions from the past but also contemporary rural and urban practices, in which diverse cultural groups take part;
Inclusive: we may share expressions of intangible cultural heritage that are similar to those practiced by others. Whether they are from the neighboring village, from a city on the opposite side of the world, or have been adapted by peoples who have migrated and settled in a different region, they all are intangible cultural heritage. They contribute to social cohesion, encouraging a sense of identity and responsibility which helps individuals to feel part of one or different communities and to feel part of society at large;
Representative: intangible cultural heritage is not merely valued as a cultural good, on a comparative basis, for its exclusivity or its exceptional value. It thrives on its basis in communities and depends on those whose knowledge of traditions, skills and customs are passed on to the rest of the community, from generation to generation, or to other communities;
Community-based: intangible cultural heritage can only be heritage when it is recognized as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it – without their recognition, nobody else can decide for them that a given expression or practice is their heritage.
UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage proposes five broad "domains" in which intangible cultural heritage is manifested:
Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage. The oral traditions and expressions domain encompasses an enormous variety of spoken forms including proverbs, riddles, tales, nursery rhymes, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and more. Oral traditions and expressions are used to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values and collective memory. They play a crucial part in keeping cultures alive. Some types of oral expression are common and can be used by entire communities while others are limited to particular social groups, only men or women, perhaps, or only the elderly. In many societies, performing oral traditions is a highly specialized occupation and the community holds professional performers in the highest regard as guardians of collective memory. Such performers can be found in communities all over the world. While poets and storytellers in non-Western societies, such as the Griots (or Jeli/Jali, a Western African historian, who delivers history as a poet, praise singer, and wandering musician) from Africa, are well known, there is also a rich oral tradition in Europe and North America. In Germany and the USA, for example, there are hundreds of professional storytellers. Because they are passed on by word of mouth, oral traditions and expressions often vary significantly in their telling. Stories are a combination – differing from genre to genre, from context to context and from performer to performer – of reproduction, improvisation and creation. This combination makes them a vibrant and colorful form of expression, but also fragile, as their viability depends on an uninterrupted chain passing traditions from one generation of performers to the next.
West African Griot playing kora
Performing arts (such as traditional music, dance and theatre). The performing arts range from vocal and instrumental music, dance and theatre to pantomime, sung verse and beyond. They include numerous cultural expressions that reflect human creativity and that are also found, to some extent, in many other intangible cultural heritage domains. Music is perhaps the most universal of the performing arts and is found in every society, most often as an integral part of other performing art forms and other domains of intangible cultural heritage including rituals, festive events or oral traditions. The rhythmic movements, steps and gestures of dance express a sentiment or mood or illustrate a specific event or daily act, such as religious dances and those representing hunting, warfare or sexual activity. Traditional theatre performances usually combine acting, singing, dance and music, dialogue, narration or recitation, but may also include puppetry or pantomime.
Flamenco Dancer, Antonio Gades, in Carmen
Social practices, rituals and festive events. Social practices, rituals and festive events are habitual activities that structure the lives of communities and groups and that are shared by and relevant to many of their members. They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events. Social, ritual and festive practices may help to mark the passing of the seasons, events in the agricultural calendar or the stages of a person’s life. They are closely linked to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory. They vary from small gatherings to large-scale social celebrations and commemorations. Social practices, rituals and festive events involve a dazzling variety of forms: worship rites; rites of passage; birth, wedding and funeral rituals; oaths of allegiance; traditional legal systems; traditional games and sports; kinship and ritual kinship ceremonies; settlement patterns; culinary traditions; seasonal ceremonies; practices specific to men or women only; hunting, fishing and gathering practices and many more.
Huaconada, a ritual dance performed in Mito (Central Peruvian Andes)
©2001 by S. Mujica
Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe include knowledge, skills, practices and representations developed by communities by interacting with the natural environment. These ways of thinking about the universe are expressed through language, oral traditions, and feelings of attachment towards a place, memories, spirituality and worldview. They also strongly influence values and beliefs and underlie many social practices and cultural traditions. They, in turn, are shaped by the natural environment and the community’s wider world. This domain includes numerous areas, such as traditional ecological wisdom, indigenous knowledge, knowledge about local fauna and flora, traditional healing systems, rituals, beliefs, initiatory rites, cosmologies, shamanism, possession rites, social organizations, festivals, languages and visual arts.
Vanuatu Sand Drawings (Vanuatu archipelago, South Pacific)
© Vanuatu National Cultural Council
Traditional knowledge and practices lie at the heart of a community’s culture and identity but are under serious threat from globalization. Even though some aspects of traditional knowledge, such as medicinal uses of local plant species, may be of interest to scientists and corporations, many traditional practices are nevertheless disappearing. Rapid urbanization and the extension of agricultural lands can have a marked effect on a community’s natural environment and their knowledge of it; clearing land may result in the disappearance of a sacred forest or the need to find an alternative source of wood for building. Climate change, continued deforestation and the ongoing spread of deserts inevitably threaten many endangered species and results in the decline of traditional craftsmanship and herbal medicine as raw materials and plant species disappear. Safeguarding a worldview or system of beliefs is even more challenging than preserving a natural environment. Beyond the external challenges to the social and natural environment, many underprivileged or marginalized communities are themselves inclined to adopt a way of life or a purely economic development model, which are far from their own traditions and customs.
Traditional craftsmanship. Traditional craftsmanship is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of intangible cultural heritage. Rather than focusing on preserving craft objects, safeguarding attempts should instead concentrate on encouraging artisans to continue to produce craft and to pass their skills and knowledge onto others, particularly within their own communities. There are numerous expressions of traditional craftsmanship: tools; clothing and jewelry; costumes and props for festivals and performing arts; storage containers, objects used for storage, transport and shelter; decorative art and ritual objects; musical instruments and household utensils, and toys, both for amusement and education. Many of these objects are only intended to be used for a short time, such as those created for festival rites, while others may become heirloom that are passed from generation to generation. The skills involved in creating craft objects are as varied as the items themselves and range from delicate, detailed work such as producing paper votives to robust, rugged tasks like creating a sturdy basket or thick blanket. Like other forms of intangible cultural heritage, globalization poses significant challenges to the survival of traditional forms of craftsmanship. Mass production, whether on the level of large multinational corporations or local cottage industries, can often supply goods needed for daily life at a lower cost, both in terms of currency and time, than hand production. Many craftspeople struggle to adapt to this competition. Environmental and climatic pressures impact on traditional craftsmanship too, with deforestation and land clearing reducing the availability of key natural resources. Even in cases where traditional artisanship develops into a cottage industry, the increased scale of production may result in damage to the environment.
Traditional Li textile techniques: spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering
©2005 by Hainan Provincial Mass Art Center
In short, instances of intangible cultural heritage are not limited to a single manifestation and many include elements from multiple domains. Take, for example, a shamanistic rite. This might involve traditional music and dance, prayers and songs, clothing and sacred items as well as ritual and ceremonial practices and an acute awareness and knowledge of the natural world. Similarly, festivals are complex expressions of intangible cultural heritage that include singing, dancing, theatre, feasting, oral tradition and storytelling, displays of craftsmanship, sports and other entertainments.
Safeguarding our intangible cultural heritage. To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to its community, continuously recreated and transmitted from one generation to another. There is a risk that certain elements of intangible cultural heritage could die out or disappear without help, but safeguarding does not mean fixing or freezing intangible cultural heritage in some pure or primordial form. Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is about the transferring of knowledge, skills and meaning. Transmission, or communicating heritage from generation to generation, is emphasized in the Convention rather than the production of concrete manifestations such as dances, songs, musical instruments or crafts. Safeguarding measures to ensure that intangible cultural heritage can be transmitted from one generation to another are considerably different from those required for protecting tangible heritage (natural and cultural). However, some elements of tangible heritage are often associated with intangible cultural heritage. That is why the Convention includes, in its definition of intangible cultural heritage, the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated with it.
For further information about the Intangible Heritage Lists (2008-2010):
Dr. Graciela Gestoso Singer
University & Heritage - Unesco World Heritage Centre