Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

The main significance of the Tombs of the Buganda Kings at Kasubi (Uganda) lies in its intangible values of belief, spirituality, continuity, and identity. The tombs gained status as a World Heritage Site in 2001 © UNESCO/Lazare Eloundou

Tangible and Intangible Heritage: An Integrated Approach

Cultural heritage is a synchronized relationship involving society (systems of interactions connecting people), norms, and values (ideas such as belief systems that attribute relative importance). Symbols, technologies, and objects are tangible evidence of underlying norms and values. Thus, they establish a symbiotic relationship between the tangible and intangible. Intangible heritage should be regarded as a larger framework in which tangible heritage takes on shape and significance within.

The Istanbul Declaration stresses that “an all-encompassing approach to cultural heritage should prevail, taking into account the dynamic link between tangible and intangible heritage and their close interaction.” This Declaration is an eminently limpid statement to the effect that intangible heritage only attains its true significance when it sheds light on its underlying values. Conversely, intangible heritage should be made incarnate in tangible manifestations, visible signs if it is to be conserved (which is only one form of safeguarding it).

The Shanghai Charter recommends that museums “establish interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial approaches that bring together movable and immovable, tangible and intangible, natural and cultural heritage” and “develop documentation tools and standards in establishing holistic museums and heritage practices”.

Now, what is meant by these “holistic approaches for tangible and intangible heritage” and how can they be put into practice? Tangible cultural heritage, be it a monument, historic city, or landscape is easy to catalogue and its protection consists mainly of conservation and restoration measures. On the other hand, intangible heritage consists of processes and practices and accordingly requires a different safeguarding approach and methodology to tangible heritage. It is fragile by its very nature and therefore much more vulnerable than other forms of heritage because it hinges on actors and social environmental conditions that are subject to rapid change. While tangible cultural heritage is designed to outlive those who produce or commission it, the fate of intangible heritage is far more intimately related to its creators as it depends, in most cases, on oral transmission. Therefore, legal and administrative measures traditionally taken to protect material elements of cultural heritage are often inappropriate for safeguarding a heritage whose most significant elements relate to particular systems of knowledge and value as well as a specific social and cultural context.

On the one hand, if we consider the conservation of monuments, cities, or landscapes, and the safeguarding, transmission of cultural practices and traditional knowledge on the other, a call for a threefold approach is required:

Widening the Context of Tangible Heritage

A holistic heritage approach would mean putting tangible heritage in a wider context, particularly in the case of religious monuments and sites, and relating it more closely to the communities concerned to afford greater weight to its spiritual, political, and social values.

Translating Intangible Heritage into Materiality

Safeguarding intangible heritage calls for its translation from an oral form into some form of materiality, (e.g. archives, inventories, museums and audio or film records). Although this could be regarded as “freezing” intangible heritage in the form of documents, it should be clear that this is only one aspect of safeguarding and great thoughtfulness and care should be given to choosing the most appropriate methods and materials for such a task.

Supporting Practitioners and the Transmission of Skills and Knowledge

UNESCO began to work with a concept in 1993 called: Living Human Treasures System, which was designed to enable tradition holders to pass their know-how on to future generations. When artists, craftspeople and other living libraries are given official recognition and support, better care can be taken to ensure the transfer of their skills and techniques to others.

The increasing international recognition of the profound relationship between tangible and intangible heritage is evident. Even if tangible and intangible heritage are very different, they are two sides of the same coin; both carry meaning and the embedded memory of humanity. Both the tangible and the intangible heritage rely on each other when it comes to understanding the meaning and importance of each. Specific policies are now essential to allow for the identification and promotion of such forms of mixed heritage that are often among the most noble cultural spaces and expressions produced by mankind.