Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Prince Lebuu statue and a modern rendition of the Palauan bai, a traditional structure on the grounds of Palau Community College in Koror, Palau. ⓒ Island Ark Project

The Island Ark Project: Digital ICH Safeguarding in Pacific Island States

Intangible cultural heritage in small island states in under great pressure: the effects of climate change, changing lifestyles, and significant regional migration mean that traditional practices require more intensive and strategic safeguarding. The Island Ark Project, a non-profit organization, works to realize Internet-based safeguarding projects across the Pacific’s small island states to meet these challenges. Founded in 2015, the Island Ark Project is a transnational, volunteer-driven organization that currently focuses on ICH safeguarding in the Republic of Palau.
The Pacific is full of lived intangible cultural heritage, such as the Palauan ngasech (first child birth) widely practiced in the island country and in Palauan migrant communities around the world. Within local communities in Pacific small island states, transmission of ICH often works well, particularly if civil society organizations, families, and state institutions work together. Challenges can arise where external stressors such as climate change and globalization affect societies and particularly where large numbers of islanders leave their home and disperse to places around the world.

People leave their home islands for myriad reasons. Among young people–the future bearers of ICH–these reasons often include education, employment opportunities, or mere curiosity. In many cases, emigres never return home and raise their children in the new country using a new language. Small island communities can perceive a loss of cultural continuity when new generations do not continue practices that are associated with their ICH. For islanders living off-island this may equally lead to a feeling of cultural loss. It is hard for them or their children to fit in again, if they ever return, without the language and the knowledge of traditional practices.

The Island Ark Project was founded on the belief that digital approaches to ICH safeguarding can be useful for meaningful ICH safeguarding across generations and places. The core technology in use for digital safeguarding are websites that can store various file types (such as images, audio, video, and text) in a systematic matter. Such an online platform needs to display ICH information in an appealing, user-friendly way, focused to make transmission of knowledge as easy as possible. ICHCAP has recently created its own version of a web template that the Island Ark Project has happily embraced as a useful tool in its toolkit. However, computer code is not everything: at the heart of Internet-based ICH work lies the conviction that new technologies must be accepted by the cultural community and that technology must always be accompanied by careful considerations regarding the nature of the practice and the way transmission works. For instance, some practices are only being taught within a family—and there is limited appetite or utility to make such information public.

The Island Ark Project’s approach is to help develop tailored online platforms that are useful for ICH practitioners and groups engaged in ICH safeguarding. Which combination of features make an online platform useful strongly depends on the specific cultural and social context. This is why it is an important part of the work of the Island Ark Project is to bring safeguarding professionals together and provide trainings to ICH safeguarding stakeholders in order to plan how digital safeguarding can be best organized for groups, institutions and communities. Especially when it comes to the question which practices are meant for broader transmission and which constitute guarded family secrets, it is pivotal that many stakeholders cooperate.

The Island Ark Project recently organized two well-received workshops for the broader safeguarding community in the Republic of Palau. The first of those workshops took place in the state of Koror, in late 2017, bringing together a number of participants engaged in ICH safeguarding. The two-day workshop attracted representatives from Belau National Museum, Sonsorol State Government, Palau Community College, the Bai Project, and Palau Resource Institute. Careful discussions of the opportunities and challenges of digital safeguarding preceded a training with web templates for Internet-based curation of ICH materials. A follow-up workshop in early 2019 continued the effort, bringing in new stakeholders and discussing concrete ways to making collections of ICH materials available online. In the future, the participants want to use these templates to make their digital content on intangible cultural heritage available to a broader audience in Palau and beyond. Both workshops were organized with financial support provided by ICHCAP. The Island Ark Project is in regular conversations with representatives of the Republic of Palau’s Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation to make sure that social and legal standards for the work in Palau are met.

Following the definitions of UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Island Ark Project interacts with safeguarding practitioners and specialized organizations such as ICHCAP throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The organization’s aim is to further develop and spread digital ICH safeguarding technologies throughout Pacific small island states, especially in places where climate change affects livelihoods most. For instance, at some point in the future, continued settlement in some island nations such as Kiribati—whose islands average 1.8 meters at their highest elevation—may not be longer possible. The Island Ark Project hopes that online platforms will allow islanders to discuss, curate, and thus pass on their intangible cultural heritage and to continue to engage as a political and social unit.