Australian Aboriginal mythological site

Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Role of ICOMOS

The role of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage has evolved from its mandate regarding cultural heritage generally. ICOMOS was created in a world that had experienced the destruction of significant heritage places during World War II and faced the threat of destruction throughout the Cold War period. The Second Congress of Architects, Conservationists and Technicians of Historical Monuments held in Venice in May 1964 produced the Venice Charter and established ICOMOS.

In its early years, the focus of ICOMOS reflected the architectural perspective of the organization’s founders. The new organization sought “to motivate and develop the interest of the authorities and the people over their patrimony and to constitute an international organization representative of administrations, institutions, and persons interested in the conservation, restoration, and study of Monuments and Sites.”1 Zaryn, Alksandra. 1995. “The First General Assembly of ICOMOS 1965 Cracow Poland: Regulations, Bylaws and National Committees” in Thirty Years of ICOMOS, Scientific Journal: 3-6..

As the technical specializations of ICOMOS broadened so did its outlook, members noting that many of the world’s special places could not be conserved through a consideration of their physical fabric alone. In 1993 ICOMOS held its General Assembly in Sri Lanka. This was the first time its members had gathered in Asia, and the experience emphasized for many participants the need for a broader interpretation of cultural heritage and a nuanced understanding of the interplay among all cultural values of place.

Also in the 1990s, globalization led to concerns about loss of cultural diversity. Akin to the concerns of escalating species extinctions—research revealed an alarming loss of languages and the demise of cultural practices. Concern about monuments and sites in their landscape context also increased in the 1990s, giving rise to the formal recognition of cultural landscapes in the operating guidelines of the World Heritage Convention in 2005. This new focus on cultural landscapes allowed a reconceptualization of what constituted a site or monument. While fabric and place remain keystones in cultural heritage, ‘cultural landscapes’ fostered consideration of values arising from the relationship of humans with their physical environment and cosmology.

In 2003, ICOMOS held a symposium on intangible heritage and place, at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The theme was “Place, Memory, Meaning: Preserving intangible heritage in memorials and sites.” ICOMOS members shared their experience of intangible value and place and resolved to establish an international scientific committee to further develop this important area of research and practice. The International Scientific Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICICH) was established in 2005. The objectives of ICICH are consistent with the aims of ICOMOS and include to:

  • Promote international cooperation in the identification, study, and solution of issues related to the ethical identification, protection, interpretation, and management of the intangible cultural associations attributed to monuments and sites.
  • Co-operate with the International Scientific Committees of ICOMOS in reviewing doctrinal documents as well as management and conservation practices, in light of the role of intangible attributes in the significance and values of cultural heritage sites.
  • Advise ICOMOS on any role it may have in the implementation of, or other activities associated with UNESCO’s ICH Convention.
  • Advise ICOMOS on the role of intangible attributes in the role it plays in implementing UNESCO conventions and international treaties.

Whereas the 2003 UNESCO Convention invites a broad and holistic view of intangible cultural heritage, ICOMOS’s role is focused on its core business—the protection of the world’s significant monuments, sites, and places. ICICH has major role to play in trying to understand, articulate, and safeguard intangible values associated with the world’s significant places. ICOMOS’s members are heritage professionals, and this technical expertise is its strength. It can be brought to focus on particular issues through its scientific committees. Community-based processes and methodologies are being developed in archaeology, anthropology, and cross-disciplines in the social sciences in recognition that cultural heritage places have myriad values, including intangible values that need to be recognized, assessed, and managed. ICOMOS has recognized the need to develop bottom-up approaches to documenting and managing intangible cultural values of places.

Many challenges need to be resolved. For example, the increased call from the world’s indigenous peoples to more appropriately recognize associative cultural landscapes in the Word Heritage system has posed exciting challenges, especially in relation to developing meaningful methodologies for documentation and comparative analysis that integrate tangible and intangible values.

It is important for ICICH to avoid duplicating the work of others involved directly with the 2003 Convention. As a subgroup of ICOMOS, we must maintain its focus on monuments, sites, and places and advance the work of ICOMOS by using the technical expertise of its members to drill deeper into this specialist aspect of cultural heritage. There are many opportunities for collaboration, especially where values associated with cultural practices, cosmology, and oral traditions intersect with important cultural places.

ICICH, in partnership with the International Committee on Interpretation and Presentation, is organizing this year’s ICOMOS Scientific Symposium to be held in October 2015 in Fukuoka, Japan, in conjunction with our Annual Assembly and Advisory Committee meetings. The theme “Risks to Identity: Loss of Traditions and Collective Memory” will be of interest to many working in this area.

Dr. Susan McIntyre-Tamwoy (President, International Committee for Intangible Cultural Heritage, ICOMOS)

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Zaryn, Alksandra. 1995. “The First General Assembly of ICOMOS 1965 Cracow Poland: Regulations, Bylaws and National Committees” in Thirty Years of ICOMOS, Scientific Journal: 3-6.