Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Three screen installation of the Capping Ceremony of a Minor Official’s Son at 8th Triennial of Contemporary Art in Slovenia. © City University of Hong Kong and Tsinghua University, Beijing

Archives in Motion: Intangible Heritage and Embodied Exhibitions

A great challenge for sustaining intangible cultural heritage is in finding appropriate forms and methods to document and communicate its inherently ephemeral aspects. Globalization in tandem with rapid political, social, and environmental change around the world is placing both cultural and material heritage at risk in ways that societies, governments, and global institutions could not anticipate nor prevent. Recently, however, digital recording and display technologies have opened up powerful new possibilities for the representation, preservation, transmission, and exhibition of immaterial experiences, including the reconstruction of lost places, vanished objects, and embodied and ephemeral practices, signaling a new way to imagine and transmit the memory of the world.

ICH documentation faces many limitations within conventional archival and musicological models, which tend to constrain archived materials to oral histories, object biographies, video, and audio recordings of songs and performing arts. Countless instances of ICH reveal that, while memory may be invested in places, objects, or materials, these are not necessarily the key modes or nodes of cultural transmission. ICH risks being caught between two incongruous frameworks; that of the nineteenth century archival archetype, which preserves or fossilizes rather than enlivening heritage, and the technological complexity of archiving the ‘living.’ The increasing popularity of reenacted cultural performances meanwhile denotes sustained forms of sensory education that share common traits with classically defined ICH notions of tacit knowledge and repertoires of transmission.

Under the rubric of digital museology, a growing number of researchers, artists, curators, and archivists alongside designers and computer scientists are advancing this burgeoning technological domain. Digital documentation has already equipped museums, libraries, and archivists with myriad novel tools and techniques for both conservation and distribution of their collection and knowledge stores. Today’s archivist has a suite of digitization tools, starting from scanning or photographing documents or objects, which generally aim to create a faithful digital copy of an original artifact. More recent additions to this toolkit are 3D or volumetric documentation and photogrammetry. Meanwhile, there have been enormous developments arising from film-making and gaming—such as 360 and volumetric video or the recording of 3D movement via motion capture, and audio iterations—all of which are emerging as fundamental apparatuses for material-based and ICH archives. These tools, taken singly, cannot encompass the living, breathing, and mutable nature of ICH. As a multidimensional cultural space, ICH requires a holistic approach that transcends the use of technologies to represent single instances of ICH. This is crucial for embodied knowledge, which is performed and delivered to us through past, present, and future communities of practice. Even more importantly, the popularity of reenacted cultural performances reveals that forms of sensory education share common traits with more classically defined ICH notions of tacit knowledge and repertoires of transmission.

Experimental museology is advancing cross-cutting and adaptive approaches to transform the digital documentation and display of ICH inside museums. In ‘reenactment ICH’, for example, we develop digital tools for multimodal encoding, algorithmic reenactment, recombinatory narrative, and kinesthetic digital interfaces, all of which encompass bodily practices that are profoundly experiential, replacing interpretation with action, experience, and impact. In these new spaces for immersion ‘actors’ are placed in the world along with the relevant objects and cultural realms. And these ICH worlds are made vital by their participants; transcending orthodox Western mind-matter dualisms to produce new agencies, materialities, inter-corporeality, kinetic empathy, sympathetic imagination, haptic communication, and dialogue (Kenderdine and Shaw 2017, 2018; Chao, Kenderdine, and Shaw 2016; Shaw, Kenderdine, and Chao 2017; Chao et al. 2018). Two ongoing collaborative projects reveal the dynamic potential for the future museology of ICH.

Master Ip Chi Keung. Photo: Tang Ming Tung

The first of these, Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive (HKMALA), was instigated in 2012 and is an ongoing research collaboration between the International Guoshu Association, City University of Hong Kong, and the Laboratory for Experimental Museology (eM +) at EPFL, and has resulted in seven international exhibitions, including Kung Fu Motion at EPFL’s ArtLab (2018) and the Immigration Museum Melbourne in 2017, and 300 Years of Hakka Kung Fu (2016) at the Heritage Museum and CityU Galleries, Hong Kong, China. The archiving project responds to the decline of Southern Chinese Kung Fu in mainland China, where a significant portion of traditional martial arts have already vanished. Hong Kong remains a vibrant center for elite practitioners and is home to some of the most prominent martial artists in the world; however rapid urban development, population growth, cultural transformation and the aging of the masters are endangering these practices.

HKMALA brings together historical materials with creative visualizations derived from advanced documentation processes, including motion capture, motion-over-time analytics, 3D reconstruction, and panoramic video. These archival materials are re-interpreted and re-performed through the mediums of augmented virtual reality and interactive media art, such as Kung Fu Visualization (2016). As a panoptic virtual reality environment, the Re-ACTOR system shows the intricate dynamics of the Kung Fu master’s reenacted performances via serial 3D motion-captures from six different points of view, with an interactive control panel that allows visitors to select six different visualization styles that elucidate the underlying dynamics of the master’s movements.

The HKMALA ‘living archive’ also uses new immersive and interactive display paradigms to perpetuate the performance of past masters for future generations. The Kung Fu Weapons Archive (2016) is a linear navigator that provides a sliding panorama of Hakka Kung Fu weapons and training tools, as well as interactively located video demonstrations of their use by Kung Fu masters. Whenever the viewer slides the screen over one particular object, it triggers a short video clip showing the Kung Fu master’s handling of that respective weapon or training tool. With these new approaches HKMALA creates practical strategies for encoding, retrieving, and reenacting intangible heritage in ways that allow these archives at risk to be ‘alive’ in the present.

Kung Fu master in motion capture studio at City University of Hong Kong. Photo: Sarah Kenderdine

Multimodal participation is a core aspect of this exhibition’s design philosophy, and the power of these principles clearly comes into play in the pose-matching installation. Here the increasingly ubiquitous technologies of gamification are activated for ICH, with sensors allowing viewers to ‘motion capture’ their movement and body position and match these with a video sequence of poses presented on a video screen by a Kung Fu master The viewer’s endeavor is simply to see how quickly they can configure their body to match these poses, and the reward credo of the video game constructs success or failure within a given time limit. In this way, the installation appropriates the video game vernacular to create a corporeal conjunction between the body of the viewer and the body of the Kung Fu master, thereby imprinting the somatic memory of Kung Fu on the viewers’ bodies. This pose-matching installation moreover elicits the production of embodied artifacts in a generative process that enlivens the arguably crucial capacity of “novel motion-sensitive cyber technologies to both craft and leverage embodied artifacts as a means of fostering learning” (Trninic and Abrahamson 2012, 283).

In the potential absence of masters the multiple modalities of the archive’s materials can act as a vital digital or multimedia prosthesis for memory, moreover as proxies that foreground the body as the principle site of the repertoire and the holder of knowledge. This goes beyond the knowledge of style sets and movement itself and refers to tangible aspects of Kung Fu traditions and consideration of these practices as holistic philosophies and ways of life. In the context of cultural heritage, the benefit of interactive platforms combined with HKMALA’s multiple forms allows for a mode of engagement that situates the public in the act of reproducing heritage—or what might be interpreted as the ‘social production of heritage.’ This is demonstrated in the exhibition 300 years of Hakka Kung Fu, where such a collaborative model (re)places Hakka Kung Fu in a state of continuity:

Cross-media interaction can be powerful when people take active roles in the interpretation and construction of heritage and their experience is social and collaborative. Collective storytelling plays a critical role in supporting a situated and narrative mode of interpretation and construction of our sense of place and heritage … Combining technical infrastructure with diverse media and actively promoting social interaction are vital steps to support the tensional relationships between past, present and future, so that people can remember, perceive and imagine encounters with the heritage (Giaccardi, Leysia, and Taylor 2008, 284).

The future possibilities for archiving and exhibiting ICH is further highlighted in Remaking the Confucian Rites, which commenced in 2013 and continues through an international partnership between Jia Li Hall Digital Platform, Hong Kong, Tsinghua University Centre for Ritual Studies, Beijing, City University, Hong Kong, and eM+ at EPFL (Kenderdine and Shaw 2018). This project uses advanced digital techniques, including motion capture and augmented-reality annotation of movement as a new performance mode for the contemporary reenactment of Confucian rituals in conjunction with an analytical rereading of the fifth century version of the Book of Etiquettes and Rites (Yili 儀禮). Once a core text on Zhou dynasty social behavior and ceremonial ritual central to the Confucian canon for thousands of years, Yili was violently rejected by modernizers at the end of dynastic China, precipitating a breakdown in cultural transmission. Remaking the Confucian Rites revives li studies as a system of awareness and embodied practice that also reflects the rapid changes to Chinese people’s sensibilities in terms of their physical bodies and embodied self through modernization.

So far, three out of seventeen rites have been recorded with elite actors from the Beijing Opera, alongside amateur performers. Of these, the Rite of Capping Ceremony of a Minor Official’s Son has been developed into an interactive application in which motion capture and augmented-reality annotation of movement enliven these re-envisioned performances. Another three-screen video offers a linear exposition of the capping rite, with an interactive application that offers the user a hyperlinked database, enabling deeper exploration of the layers of embodied knowledge and rich historical meanings. These works have been curated into several exhibitions, including the Royal Opening of the China Exchange London in 2015, in Body of Confucius curated by Johnson Chang for ‘Beyond the Globe’ at the 8th Triennial U3 2016 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and in 2018 at the Art Institute Chicago in Mirroring China’s Past: Emperors and Their Bronzes.

Interactive, immersive displays and augmented, virtual, and mixed reality experiences are already transforming how we conserve and engage with ICH, and these examples reveal there are vibrant prospects for ICH documentation and exhibition, challenging conventional understandings of heritage and authenticity as well as offering vital tools for sustaining and transmitting culture. Combined with expert interpretation and communities of practice, ICH reenactment provides crucial alternatives to orthodox preservation strategies beyond object-oriented approaches, to understanding that digitally remaking ICH will be an important means of safeguarding knowledge for the future.


Kenderdine, S. and J. Shaw (2018). ‘The Museological Re-enactment of Lingnan Hung Kuen’, in H. Chao (ed.), Across the Century: Kung Fu Narratives in Cinema and Community. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong Press, 137–159.

Chao, H., S. Kenderdine, and J. Shaw eds. (2016). 300 Years of Hakka Kung Fu: Digital Vision of its Legacy and Future. Hong Kong: International Guoshu Association, 165–189.

Chao, H., M. Delbridge, S. Kenderdine, L. Nicholson and J. Shaw (2018). ‘Kapturing Kung Fu: Future Proofing the Hong Kong Martial Arts Living Archive’, in S. Whatley, R. Cisneros and A. Sabiescu (eds.), Digital Echoes. Baskingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 249–264.

Shaw, J., S. Kenderdine and H. Chao (2017). ‘Establishing a Permanent Kung Fu Museum in Hong Kong’ in A. Cho, P. Lo and D. Chiu (eds.), Chandos Information Professional Series, Inside the World’s Major East Asian Collections. Cambridge, Mass./Kidlington, UK: Chandos Publishing, 343–354.

Kenderdine, S. and J. Shaw (2017). ‘Archives in Motion. Motion as Meaning’, in O. Grau (ed.), Museum and Archive on the Move: Changing Cultural Institutions in the Digital Era. Berlin: De Gruyter, 211–233.

Giaccardi, E., Leysia, P. and F. Taylor. (2008). ‘The Social Production of Heritage through Cross-Media Interaction: Making Place for Place-Making’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 14 (10) 281–97. doi:

Trninic, D. and D. Abrahamson (2012). ‘Embodied Artifacts in Action and Conceptual Performances’ 10th International Conference of the Learning Sciences: The Future of Learning, ICLS 2012 – Proceedings – 1, 283–290.