In UNESCO's stable of conventions for the protection of world heritage lives the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003 - the heritage equivalent of performance art.
Over the past week, an annual committee meeting has been discussing new additions to the group of traditions which UNESCO lists as intangible cultural heritage. As the committee envoys were making their way home from sunny Bali, UNESCO announced that the list now includes 19 more 'practices and expressions that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance'.
|Intangible, but festive: Croatian gingerbread|
The list includes a wide array of traditions including Cypriot poetic duelling, Peruvian Eshuva sung prayer, and Iranian Naqqa-Li, a form of dramatic storytelling. Weaving, dance, boatbuilding, and foods are all in there. Some more unexpected traditions have made their way to the list too - a nine-hundred-year old hopping procession in Luxembourg, oil wrestling, gingerbread making, the tango and even the 'Mediterranean diet' (which actually appears to be doing quite well on its own). There is also a second list, which notes those traditions which are in urgent need of safeguarding.
Safeguarding such practices by means of international legislation seems a strange and difficult task - how do you ensure continuity in the supply of traditional gingerbread? But the Convention defines 'safeguarding' as 'ensuring the viability of intangible cultural heritage'. It asks that states make inventories of traditions within their territory, 'ensure recognition of and respect for the intangible cultural heritage in society, in particular through developing educational, awareness-raising and information programmes', and supporting non-formal means of transmitting knowledge which enables the practices to continue.
The Convention also acknowledges that traditions which have lost relevance to their communities should not necessarily be kept alive on legal life support. Intangible cultural heritage, like 'any living body ... follows a life cycle and therefore some elements are to disappear, after having given birth to new forms of expressions', says UNESCO's website. It goes on to say that the 'value of intangible cultural heritage is defined by the communities themselves – they are the ones who recognise these manifestations as part of their heritage and who find it valuable'.
This is an interesting point. If a tradition is in need of safeguarding, and particularly urgent safeguarding, does this not often mean that it is already losing relevance to its community? To take a homegrown example (not on UNESCO's list), the art of dry-stone walling in Yorkshire is no longer one which young locals want to pursue. The region has fewer farms, fewer livestock, and needs fewer dry-stone walls. Sad as it is to see such arts falling out of use, their place in community life may have gone. But on the other hand it could be argued that if such traditions are worth safeguarding at all, they should be preserved regardless of whether or not they are relevant to the communities they came from. Physical culture after all is preserved whether it is relevant to current generations or not (or rather, as the manifestation of our past, it is deemed always relevant to our future); a ruined tomb in a Turkish village from a long-gone civilisation is no longer connected with that village, but that doesn't mean it's not worth looking after.