Friday, 18 July 2014

How do you protect what you can't see? The perils of preserving intangible cultural heritage

A recent announcement for the ICOMOS-UK conference on "Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK: promoting and safeguarding our diverse living cultures" got me thinking about this complex concept and how one actually goes about ensuring the stories, oral histories and ritual traditions that make up a culture don't disappear over time.

An article in Heritage & Society from April 2011, written by Rosabelle Boswell and entitled 'Challenges to Sustaining Intangible Cultural Heritage' addresses the issues facing the conservators that take on this task.

"The 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)...refers to the role of intangible cultural heritage in in maintaining diversity, sociality, and understanding. It also notes the interdependence of tangible and intangible heritage and the role of the youth and indigenous people in heritage maintenance."

In this paper Boswell specifically addresses the difficulties of preserving ICH in Africa due to what she calls the "persistent social stratification and inequality" across the continent. She notes that ICH is "(1) dynamic (2) borne by different people and (3) part of living culture. In safeguarding and ultimately preserving ICH one risks ossifying culture, elevating 'specialist' holders of knowledge in the society and neglecting the role played by other 'managers' of heritage."

In the article, Boswell references countries in the Indian Ocean Region, namely Zanzibar, Mauritius and Madagascar, but it seems the issues addressed - such as "commercialization, the potential ossification of culture via preservation and the issues of ambivalent heritage"- have a broader relevance to ICH across the globe.

Read the full article for free >

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