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Intangible Cultural Heritage – does the UK have any?

How should the UK adopt the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage? James Merryclough investigates.

Apologies for the slightly click-bait headline. The answer is, obviously: yes. But after almost 20 years, the Government might be finally catching up.

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport is consulting on how the UK should adopt the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. We suspect this might be of interest to rather a lot of our readership, so thought we’d give the low-down on ICH and how to get involved in the consultation.

Let us know in the comments below what you think should be included from the UK.

What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) encompasses the rich tapestry of traditions, expressions, and practices that communities inherit from their ancestors and pass on to future generations. Unlike tangible heritage, such as monuments or artefacts, intangible cultural heritage is, obviously, intangible. It resides in the realms of knowledge, skills, rituals, music, dance, language, and other forms of expression. It is a dynamic and living heritage that constantly evolves, reflecting the collective wisdom, creativity, and identity of diverse communities worldwide. Which we think aligns pretty closely with Tradfolk’s ethos.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, recognizes the significance of intangible cultural heritage and its role in fostering cultural diversity and human creativity. 

The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is a landmark international agreement aimed at safeguarding and promoting these invaluable cultural expressions. Communities play a central role in identifying, documenting, and transmitting their intangible cultural heritage, emphasising the importance of grassroots involvement in preserving and revitalising these traditions.

Intangible cultural heritage not only shapes the identity of communities but also fosters mutual respect and understanding among different cultures. It serves as a source of inspiration for contemporary creativity, contributing to the richness of our shared global cultural heritage. Efforts to safeguard intangible cultural heritage are essential to ensure its transmission to future generations, promoting cultural diversity and fostering a sense of belonging and continuity in an ever-changing world.

Examples of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Intangible Cultural Heritage is incredibly diverse and can take various forms:

  • Oral Traditions and Storytelling: The oral transmission of stories, myths, legends, and epic tales is a common form of ICH. For example, the epic poem “Iliad” from ancient Greece, the African Griot storytelling tradition, or Native American oral narratives all fall under this category.
  • Traditional Music and Dance: Folk music and traditional dance forms are integral to many cultures. Examples include Flamenco in Spain, the Tango in Argentina, or the traditional dance forms of Bharatanatyam in India.
  • Cuisine and Culinary Traditions: Food and culinary practices are often considered intangible cultural heritage. Examples include sushi-making in Japan, the Mediterranean diet, or the intricate rituals associated with tea ceremonies in East Asia.
  • Festivals and Celebrations: Numerous festivals and celebrations represent intangible cultural heritage, such as Carnival in Brazil, Diwali in India, or the Chinese New Year celebrations. These events often involve specific rituals, performances, and traditional attire.
  • Traditional Crafts and Artistic Skills: Skills like pottery, weaving, woodworking, and other traditional crafts contribute to intangible cultural heritage. Examples include Navajo weaving in the United States, Japanese tea ceremony utensil crafting, or the art of glassblowing in Venice, Italy.
  • Language and Linguistic Traditions: Languages and linguistic diversity are critical components of intangible cultural heritage. Efforts to preserve endangered languages, like the Maori language in New Zealand or the Ainu language in Japan, are integral to safeguarding cultural identity.
  • Traditional Medicine and Healing Practices: Indigenous healing practices, herbal remedies, and traditional medicine systems, such as Ayurveda in India or Traditional Chinese Medicine, are forms of intangible cultural heritage deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and practices.
  • Rituals and Ceremonies: Sacred and secular rituals are often passed down through generations. Examples include the Holi festival in India, the Day of the Dead in Mexico, or the Japanese tea ceremony

Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK

Unfortunately, this is a short section in this article.

The beady-eyed amongst you will have spotted that none of the examples above are from the UK. That’s because, somewhat shockingly, despite the 2003 convention coming into effect in 2006, the UK remains one of 12 out of 193 countries in the world that has not ratified the convention, and therefore has no items on the Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. That’s despite there being various suggestions over the years for what should be on there.

There have been various arguments and historic reasons put forward by various governments about why this is the case, including that we value buildings more (the National Trust has been in existence for over 100 years, afterall); that it would increase bureaucracy and costs; and even, laughably, that the UK has no living heritage, due to early industrialisation. This final point completely misunderstands the purpose of the register, which is to provide an evolving, living list which could just as easily contain Boxing Day football matches or mining communities, as mediaeval music and dance.

Winds of change

But, thankfully, it seems like this might be about to change.

The Government is now consulting on how the UK plans to implement the Convention. So our cultural assets might finally have the recognition, protection and advocacy they need to continue, thrive and evolve.

“No results found”

That being said, there seems to be no appetite, for now at least, to add UK items to the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage:

“We will not focus on nominating items of Intangible Cultural Heritage from the UK to this list, at least for the first few years following ratification… Judging which elements are more valuable or important than others is neither desirable or beneficial, nor is there any commonly agreed way of doing so.

“We propose to focus on the Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK, raising awareness of all the Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK – that is, to lift all rather than list a few with UNESCO.”

Still; small steps.

Get involved

To make your views heard you can respond to the consultation survey or attend one of the online roundtable discussions below. The discussions are themed so you can chose the ones most of interest.

We’ll be attending some of the discussions and will keep an eye on the progress of the consultation and resulting paper over the next few months.

  1. England, Friday 26th January 9:30-11:30am
  2. Northern Ireland, Friday 26th January 1-3pm
  3. Wales, Monday 29th January 10-12pm
  4. Scotland, Tuesday 30th January 1-3pm
  5. Oral traditions & expressions, including Folklore, Monday 5th February 10-12pm
  6. Oral traditions & expressions, including Folklore, Monday 5th February 7-9pm
  7. Performing arts, Wednesday 7th February 9-11am
  8. Performing arts, Wednesday 7th February 7-9pm
  9. Social practices, rituals, festive events, Thursday 8th February 10-12pm
  10. Social practices, rituals, festive events, Thursday 8th February 7-9pm
  11. Nature and the universe, Monday 12th February 10-12pm Monday 12th February 10-12pm
  12. Nature and the universe, Monday 12th February 7-9pm Monday 12th February 7-9pm
  13. Traditional craftsmanship, Tuesday 13th February 1-3pm Tuesday 13th February 1-3pm
  14. Traditional craftsmanship, Tuesday 13th February 7-9pm Tuesday 13th February 7-9pm
  15. Culinary traditions, Monday 19th February 10-12pm Monday 19th February 10-12pm
  16. Traditional sports and games, Tuesday 20th February 1-3pm Tuesday 20th February 1-3pm
  17. Minority ICH, Thursday 22nd February 10-12pm Thursday 22nd February 10-12pm