Five flavours of intangible cultural heritage
From panto to performance
From panto to performance
What does 'cultural heritage' mean to you? Does your mind immediately turn to the iconic works of illustrious artists on show in museums and galleries? To the kilometres of shelves in public archives and libraries? Or to something more private - a photo album unfolding your family history generation by generation?
There might be a plethora of things that you consider important to preserve for the future. But we venture a guess that none of those things are 'untouchable' or intangible. Nonetheless, a substantial part of what makes up our history and identity are practices, ideas, insights and experiences.
In this blog, we give a hint as to the many flavours of intangible cultural heritage by exploring the five domains identified in UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003).
First, there are oral traditions including language as well as a wide range of expressions and modes of storytelling.
Oral heritage encompasses proverbs and tales, legends and myths, chants and prayers, poetry and children’s rhymes. Traditions such as those of the Weihnachtsmärchen have regional variations all across the globe. The Christmas pantomimes famous in the English-speaking world, for instance, stem from the same 'family'.
Another domain is that of the performing arts, comprising dance, theatre and music at large: perhaps the most universal of all forms of intangible heritage. In all cultures and communities, music forms part of daily life but also marks special occasions, such as milestones in life, religious feasts and ritual practices.
Often, traditional practices are situated at the intersection of these domains. In the clip below, Sofia and Francisco Belchior demonstrate the fundamentals of the dance game Carraquinhas involving poetry, song and choreography.
The wide variety of activities with which people mark the passing of the seasons, commemorations, historical or political events and religious or spiritual ideas is considered intangible cultural heritage as well. While, in some cases, participants adhere to a strict set of rules and scenarios, other traditions are quite informal and reflect changing times, lifestyles and community identities.
Carnival is an example found all over the world: a celebration that comes in many forms and guises but always involves celebratory excess in advance of a period of restraint and fasting. Some of the most illustrious parades and masked balls have even become tourist attractions.
The two remaining domains of intangible heritage both involve the transfer of knowledge and skills: those concerning nature and the universe, and those related to artisan production. As for the latter, it’s not so much the produce of traditional craftsmen as their insights and mastery of the creation process that are considered 'intangible' cultural heritage.
Initiatives supporting young creatives to get acquainted with centuries-old methods and techniques help to keep alive practices that are often central to a community's identity.
In the new millennium, traditional crafts have become endangered due to industrialisation and globalisation, migration, economic pressure and (the lack of) copyright laws.
Dealing with a changing world is very much at the core of the fifth and final domain of intangible cultural heritage: knowledge about fauna and flora, indigenous wisdom, ecological insights and traditional medicinal practices.
Spring or harvest feasts, for instance, reflect a knowledge of nature and insight in the turnings of the universe, specifically related to a certain locale, landscape or community.
As the pace of climate change increases and the severity of global crises unfortunately isn't waning, the safeguarding of such ancient knowledge is only growing: lessons learnt from the past are vital for our understanding of what a healthy, happy future for our planet might look like.
This blog is part of WEAVE – Widen European Access to cultural communities Via Europeana, a project aimed at developing a framework to link the tangible and intangible heritage of cultural communities.