Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Storytelling through school children to foster ICH at the Cua Van Floating Cultural Centre in Ha Long Bay (Photo by Amareswar Galla)

ICH and the ‘Fingers in the Dirt’ Vietnam Field School

One of the most challenging imperatives of the twenty-first Century is to bring people and their heritage together through a holistic conservation ethic. It requires a departure from the silo approaches of dealing with heritage resources along fragmented disciplines and professional lines. Sustainable heritage development means integrated engagement, in any given context, with the sum of all the heritage resources – tangible and intangible; cultural and natural; movable and immovable.

In this context, intangible heritage or ICH provides the means for exploring a dynamic sense of place and cultural esteem of groups through the First Voice of the primary stakeholders playing a definitive role in informing all official, professional and community processes.

Primarily is the understanding of safeguarding as a critical concept that is inclusive of and builds on all the earlier definitions of heritage protection. It underlines the viability of the ICH element and its organic evolution with changing times or the revitalization of its various aspects. The associated methodologies for safeguarding are being scoped and developed through demonstration projects.

Then the integration of ICH and tangible heritage calls for understanding the complexity of different UNESCO Convent ions in a comparative context. For instance, the Urgent Safeguarding List is central to the 2003 ICH Convention. This is different from placing World Heritage properties on the List of World Heritage in Danger, referred to as the ‘danger list.’ But there is confusion between the understandings of the two lists including a sense of embarrassment associated with the danger list and thus inadvertently precluding the nominations for the Urgent Safeguarding List of the ICH Convention. Similarly, while the concept of authenticity is an integral part of the World Heritage inscription process, it is contested in safeguarding dynamic and living ICH elements.

The 2003 ICH Convention is popularly called ‘the people’s convention’ or ‘the democratic convention.’ It has embedded participatory democracy validating carriers and transmitters of ICH and their contextual communities as well as relevant research mechanisms and expertise. Institutional capacity building to understand the safeguarding of ICH has only recently been recognized by several agencies. While most training programs are addressing the challenges of dealing with ICH, there is at least the international Best Practice Field School for building the competencies of heritage workers in ICH within the total context of heritage development.

The Field School covers several key themes through problem solving exercises using culture in poverty alleviation case studies in Vietnam. Safeguarding as a concept, a strategy and a process is analyzed and discussed in various community and heritage contexts during the school. Integrated approaches to both intangible and tangible heritage are examined at various places. This includes various cross cutting diversity themes of gender, ethnicity, race, class, language, faith, region, economic status, and so on. Millennium Development Goals and Vietnam’s rapid progress in addressing them are central to the transformative learning of the Field School.

The safeguarding of ICH is also studied in diverse World Heritage Areas using documented demonstration projects from Ha Long Bay, Hue and Hoi An. The Field School is interdisciplinary and intersectorial. It examines integrated local area planning as a framework using the case study of Hoi An World Heritage Area and the Cham Island UNESCO Biosphere reserve in the total environment of the Hoi An district and the surrounding riverine and marine hinterlands. The application of the western dichotomy of nature and culture in an Asian context is interrogated.

The 2003 ICH and the 2005 Cultural Diversity Conventions are considered twin standard setting instruments. These along with the suite of all the cultural and natural international heritage instruments of UNESCO are examined seamlessly throughout the Field School. The location of culture in sustainable development has been taken one step further with safeguarding ICH in poverty alleviation through the Cua Van Floating Cultural Centre among the fishing communities in the heart of the Ha Long Bay World Heritage Area. Ecomuseology, an Asian variation of it in many ways, provides the methodology.

A professional development initiative of the Pacific Asia Observatory for Cultural Diversity in Human Development established as part of the Action Plan of the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001), this Field School is developed and run by a team of Vietnamese and other experts including community leaders facilitated and led by Professor Dr Amareswar Galla. For further information visit: www.pacificasiaobservatory.org.