Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

A group of Igorot pottery makers from Samoki, Mountain Province (c. 1910)

The Birth of UNESCO’s Living Human Treasures Program

UNESCO’s program on ‘Non-Physical Heritage,’ which was on the verge of ‘extinction’, was given a new impetus in 1992 under the title ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ on the occasion of the organizations significant restructuring of the cultural program. I was given the task of leading this new program under renewed conceptual underpinnings. Before re-conceptualizing the program, I began taking stock of the activities carried out in the field of ICH during the previous two decades.

Considering developing a new orientation for the intangible cultural heritage program, a meeting of experts: The International Consultation on New Perspectives for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Program, convened in June 1993 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. The experts, after having examined the results from the information gathered during the stocktaking process, realized a new paradigm was introduced concerning the concept of intangible cultural heritage. The results made it clear that priority went to the order of scopes, objectives, and actions to be undertaken as well as newly proposed methodologies. They addressed a series of recommendations that were considered in the Medium-Term Plan (1996-2001). Priorities were set on the revitalization of intangible heritage and recommended that the selection of cultural expressions and practices being revitalized and transmitted to future generations, be made by their practitioners. Research efforts should not be the priority of UNESCO but be left to scientific and academic institutions. Experts emphasized the crucial roles of practitioners and communities as well as necessary measures that are to be taken to ensure that they participate on all levels of the safeguarding process. In this regard, the significance of training was championed. Experts also underscored the importance of recognizing the continuous evolution of ICH expressions and practices.

Former Ambassador of the Republic of Korea, Sang-Seek Park, a participant during the meeting, presented a successful anecdote of the nation putting to use the safeguarding system for intangible cultural heritage entitled: ‘Living Human Treasures,’ and submitted a recommendation for UNESCO to establish a ‘World Register of Living Human Treasures’ as an efficient measure to enhance the revitalization of ICH. By way of this measure, assurance for the transmission of the heritage to the next generation was stressed by experts and the recommendation was enthusiastically welcomed. Due to unanimous approval by the experts, the government of the Republic of Korea proposed a new project to the subsequent session of the Executive Board (at its 142 session) in October 1993. The initial proposal by Korea was to create a system of the ‘World Register of Living Human Treasures.’ Despite the eloquent and enthusiastic speech given by former Ambassador Sang-Seek Park, the Executive Board manifestly expressed its reservation to launch such an ambitious project bearing a worldwide scope. The project proposed a progressive process and adhered to three steps: firstly, UNESCO promotes this system among Member States encouraging them to adopt it nationally; secondly, the organization invites Member States to submit their national list of living human treasures to UNESCO once this system proves to become prevalent; and finally, UNESCO compiles a ‘World List of Living Human Treasures’. Following this decision, UNESCO drafted guidelines for the creation of a national Living Human Treasures System and distributed it to all Member States, inviting them to familiarize themselves with this new concept and to eventually establish this safeguarding system in their own countries. UNESCO also organized training courses to explain this system in more detail. Resulting from UNESCO’s promotional activities, several countries, such as the Czech Republic, Cambodia, Fiji, France, Nigeria, and Senegal established the system with assistance from UNESCO.

The impact of these activities was much stronger than expected, in general, the term ‘Living Human Treasures’ contributed to raising awareness of intangible cultural heritage. The term was relatively unknown outside of Asia, but because it sounded intriguing to other countries in and near the region, it became somewhat of a catch phrase, triggering the interest of various Member States. During the debates of UNESCO’s governing bodies, several delegates requested further explanation regarding this term.

Today, former Ambassador Sang-Seek Park recalls the difficult discussions he had with various Ambassadors and members of UNESCO’s Executive Board. Thus, the term ‘Living Human Treasures’ swiftly became prominent within UNESCO as well as externally thereof. Moreover, the Living Human Treasures project contributed to focusing the attention of Member States on the significant role that practitioners, actors, and creators play in enacting and transmitting heritage.

The Republic of Korea thus provided a conceptual impetus and marked a milestone in the history of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Program of UNESCO. The Korean government continued to encourage countries, notably Cambodia and Fiji, to establish the Living Human Treasures System through the Republic of Korea Funds-in-Trust endowed within UNESCO. The Living Human Treasures project thus laid the foundation for the principal concept of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage—that is, safeguarding ICH through transmission, aiming to ensure the viability of such heritage within the practitioners’ communities.