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Artillery Row

Intangible benefits for intangible heritage?

It remains to be seen whether the UK’s Ratification of UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage will be valuable

Cheese Rolling. The Eisteddfod. The Highland Games. The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. Dry Stone Walling. Tartan. Choral Evensong.

These are just some of the things that could receive an enhanced level of protection as “intangible heritage” if the government ratifies UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Heritage (ICH), which allows a level of importance similar to Britain’s World Heritage Sites to be assigned to traditional practices, rituals, stories, crafts, games, costumes, music, dance (and more). Although the ICH has been in existence for more than twenty years, the government has only just signalled its intention to ratify the Convention, and has issued a public consultation to allow individuals and organisations to have their say. But what is “intangible heritage”, and do we need a United Nations convention to protect it? And what might be the consequences of ratifying the ICH? 

The word “heritage” usually brings to mind castles, cathedrals, ancient buildings, and the priceless contents of museums. It has long been recognised, however, that heritage is a great deal more than just built structures and moveable objects. Not long after UNESCO began identifying World Heritage Sites deserving of outstanding protection in 1972, representatives of several countries observed that the heritage of some regions might be better represented in their traditional customs, lore, and oral and musical traditions than in their buildings or treasures. For historically marginalised nationalities, in particular, culture and heritage are often defined by orally transmitted tradition that subsists within the common cultural memory of the community itself. Accordingly, in 2003 UNESCO defined intangible heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills … that communities, [and] groups … recognize as part of their cultural heritage”, noting that this intangible heritage should be transmitted from generation to generation, provide communities with a sense of identity and continuity, and express human creativity.

A state ratifying the ICH is supposed to “take necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory”, although the Convention limits consideration to intangible cultural heritage compatible with “the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals”. Given that many cultural practices arise from religious belief and political sensitive expressions of group identity, this limitation is potentially problematic. It is unclear whether it would exclude the notoriously unsafe yet traditional practice of cheese rolling and the traditionally violent “Haxey Hood” game (one of football’s more atavistic local precursors), but it is easy to see how the inclusion of, say, the Fife and Drum Bands of Northern Ireland might be considered an issue. They are undeniably an integral part of the intangible musical and social heritage of the people of Ulster — but they are also interwoven inseparably into the political and religious allegiances of the province’s Loyalist community, and thus potentially fall foul of the terms of the ICH because other communities in Northern Ireland might consider them part of a tradition of intimidation.

Who, exactly, is competent to represent a community in proposing intangible heritage for inclusion in the inventory?

The government is not proposing to submit a definitive list of intangible cultural heritage from the UK to UNESCO, so that certain examples of intangible cultural heritage receive special protection and others do not, in the way that Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall (for example) receive a special status from UNESCO among the UK’s built heritage. Rather, the proposal is for an “inventory” of intangible cultural heritage to be compiled as the UK government’s working list of intangible heritage meriting particular protection. Exactly what that protection might entail is left somewhat vague, but under present political and economic conditions it seems unlikely it will include additional funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Be that as it may, in its public consultation the government asks the public for its views on five proposed categories of intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions and their expression (including languages), performing arts, social practices and rituals, knowledge and practices concerning nature, and traditional crafts. The public are also asked about the inclusion of two further categories — games and sports and culinary traditions — and invited to suggest any additional categories that might merit inclusion. A further issue at stake in the consultation is whether individuals, or only communities, should be allowed to put forward submissions to the UK’s ICH inventory.

This last question raises a contentious issue; who, exactly, is competent to represent a community in proposing intangible heritage for inclusion in the inventory? Must it be a participant in the activity or tradition? A leader of the activity? Or simply a member of a community for whom that activity or tradition is significant? Because intangible cultural heritage is, by definition, informal popular culture it is usually difficult (if not impossible) to identify anyone who is in charge of it. It remains to be seen whether ratification of the ICH will bring our intangible heritage any tangible benefits.

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