We can be swept away by a traditional wedding dance or entranced by the poets of a vanishing language--but defining this intangible cultural heritage is far from simple, as UNESCO's efforts to safeguard endangered masterpieces go to show
Traditional Kunqu opera of China, Nogaku theatre of Japan, Kutiyattam dance in India. Men's polyphonic choral singing from Georgia. The ancient knowledge of crafting Lithuanian wooden and metal crosses. The Niagassola Sosso Bala musical tradition of Guinea, In a new programme, UNESCO proclaims these, among others, "masterpieces of intangible cultural heritage."
Intangible cultural heritage is a technical term used by experts, not by shamans or musicians. It generally refers to immaterial aspects of culture--ephemeral products like stories and language itself, as well as to the beliefs, values, and forms of knowledge and skill that give cultures their vitality. This heritage can, for example, include wedding dances and funeral laments, artisans' skills and orally conveyed knowledge of farming.
It can even include festivals and spaces where people gather, such as the wondrous Djamaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh. You might find its traces in a museum--plants used by a traditional healer, for example--but it is mostly the living, oral tradition of a people. It is not culture under glass!
Japan's living national treasures
Scholars have long recognized the intangibility of culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries philologists, folklorists and others tried to document the world's oral traditions. Yet the term "intangible cultural heritage" is relatively recent. In 1950, Japan initiated a living national treasures programme to recognize the great skills of masters of the traditional arts.
Similar programmes began in Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, the United States and France. Intangible heritage is seen as an asset or resource to be protected, appreciated, utilized and managed--an idea traceable back to the Meiji period. In the West, meanwhile, jurists recognized the idea of intellectual property as an asset, defining copyright and patent as putting an idea into material form. But collective, cultural creation that was unwritten or unrecorded remained problematic--it still does.
In the 1970s, discussion of UNESCO's World Heritage List, which later came to include natural landscapes, stimulated broader thinking about the need to safeguard intangible cultural heritage. Meetings of experts ensued, recommendations were developed and the technical discussions continued until they reached a pinnacle in May 2001, when UNESCO's Director-General Koichiro Matsuura proclaimed the first 19 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Why so long for this concept to make it into international consciousness? Well, for one, it has suffered the problem of vagueness long associated with the term "culture." "Heritage" and "intangible" just compound the difficulty. Second, there's a terminology problem--what to call it? It is hard to imagine the term "intangible cultural heritage" sliding off the tongue of any laureates.
Vagueness and terminology aside, interest in the subject has grown with public awareness of globalization. On the macro-level, cultural resources, in a similar way to natural resources, seem to be endangered or disappearing. Of more than 6,000 languages still spoken on the planet, linguists predict that 50 to 95 percent will not last through the next century. The great majority are not written and lack any tangible form. When a language dies, there is a startling loss of knowledge and expression accumulated over generations.
On the micro-level, many people do not want to accept a social universe of homogenized global consumers bereft of ancestors, stories, and meaningful experiences. Local cultural reassertion is a way of saying, "my world may have become bigger, but I still have a …