Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Makhuwa Nahara woman in a market place (Photo by Ernesto Matzinhe, Mozambique Island)

Inventorying ICH under the 2003 UNESCO Convention

Artifacts and art works, often classified as material culture, have long been targets of collectors’ classifications, typologies, or taxonomies. In architectural and urban preservation, inventories play a major role as tools for the identification of monuments and sites of heritage value. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003), however, requires a totally new approach to this matter. Safeguarding is a public policy that aims at protecting cultural elements in the context of the social experiences that create and nurture them.

Moreover, it is concerned not only with heritage value as attributed by preservation agencies but also—if not mainly—with those ascribed by local cultures and embedded in cultural dynamics. This is what seems to be at stake when safeguarding is conceived as “ensuring the viability” of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as living and changeable social practices. Consequently, the following conceptual issues must be raised in relation to inventory-making in this field of cultural preservation.

Cultures provide the basic chart that gives meaning to peoples’ shared experiences. Social practices, knowledge, and forms of expression having patrimonial value or not are created, appropriated, developed, or forgotten by populations in specific times and places. They pertain to ways of life and constitute the historical presents of real human beings; they are not fragments of past events, reminiscent of some golden age of cultural history. Hence, their significance is grounded on the social contexts in which they are formed and transformed.

These ideas lead to a central issue for inventory-making, namely, that the identification of cultural elements and their inclusion in heritage lists must consider the practices with which they are interconnected, as well as the resources (material and intellectual) needed for their production and reproduction, change in specific times and places.

Furthermore, social facts should not be represented in inventories as static flashes, but as realities in motion, in at least two senses of the word: in the sense that they imply duration in time and that they are changeable (not fixed) products of human agency. This implies that, as far as cultural processes are concerned, lists produced by surveys are necessarily dated yet are open-ended.

Inventories result from the segmentation of social reality in flux by classificatory systems of thought, which are intrinsically culturally biased. Indeed, societies do not necessarily build theories about their own cultural practices and do not sort out aspects of their social life in categories and types, such as religion, art, economy, public ceremonies as Western thought has done for centuries. Know-how or artistic skills are not usually dissociated from other forms of participation in cultural performances, just as prayers and spells are not set apart from the activities in which people engage in their rituals and in everyday life.

It is crucial for surveys to unveil the practical and symbolic links of ICH with the territory and natural environment as well as its social embedment and socio-psychological rooting— that is, its implications for self-esteem, personal identity and belonging. For these reasons, inventories should consider not only what is highlighted by legal and administrative parameters, but also what is empirically indicated by fieldwork.

According to the Convention, inventories should identify and document the cultural items that are recognized by specific social groups as their heritage and by the safeguarding authorities as suitable for protection within the limits of existing legislation. Consequently, its implementation requires tools and procedures that give adequate responses both to the demands implied by the conceptions underlying the Convention and to the historically accumulated experience, actual demands, constraints, and possibilities that are proper to the specific national and local contexts in which safeguarding is developed.

In brief, the construction of internationally agreed safeguarding practices—and particularly inventories—demands the development of research and management strategies and methods that (i) raise questions based on these general parameters and (ii) effectively illuminate issues and give answers to priorities that are put forth by the protagonists of heritage creation: the so-called cultural communities.

It also leads to the understanding that inventories must be reasonably dense in terms of ethnographic and historic interpretation because they are tools of strategic importance in mediating the cultural and political gap existing among the local, national, and international levels. Consequently, they should be supported by in-depth ethnographies.

The segmentation of cultures and heritage management are complex intellectual operations that require specialized training. The subject is as polemical among anthropologists as it is strategically relevant both for designing the policies required by the ICH Convention and for evaluating their consequences for local lives.

To achieve this purpose, inventories should respond to the cultural and political issues and demands raised locally “with the widest possible participation of local communities, groups and individuals,” as phrased by the Convention. Consequently, methodological issues should not be dealt with only in theoretical terms. Of course, questions of social theory and epistemology must be thought of in their own right but matters of the politics of representation and decision-making must be faced and resolved politically in the concrete arenas where they are raised. This is the crucial aspect of inventory making, an approach that provides a safe basis for identifying the patrimonial value of ICH elements as well as for designing realistic and socially sustainable action plans.