Folklife, Intangible Heritage,
and the Promise and Perils
of Cultural Cooperation
Taking the long view, we may regard all preservation activities as arising from a deep cultural impulse spurring people to take conscious actions to maintain or revitalize their cultural creations and traditions. From this vantage point there is a deep relationship among such diverse activities as the preservation of Mount Vernon, the contemporary revival of Appalachian oldtime string-band music, the nomination process for the National Register of Historic Places, a religious revitalization movement among Native Americans, and a Nevada buckaroo's living-room museum of traditional cowboy gear. Each reflects a conscious effort to preserve culture—to countervail the forces of neglect, erosion, and decay in our cultural life.
If all these activities may appropriately be called “preservation,” then it is useful to consider what we usually call “historic preservation” side by side with these other forms of the preservation impulse. Historic preservation, in this light, may be seen as one important facet of a many-faceted cultural process. A complementary facet is the field of folklore and folklife, which is sometimes referred to by the historic preservation community as “intangible culture.” Considering all facets of the preservation impulse together, we realize that cultural preservation has manifested itself in a number of separate but kindred forms throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Each epicenter of preservation activity has broadened its focus in the course of time, and the broadening has led to a convergence among them, inviting us to consider them together in future preservation efforts.