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Folklife at the International Level: The Roots of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Part IV, the 1989 Recommendation

A woman sitting on the floor playing a long zither type instrument on her lap.

Chongsook Ma (Tong Sook Ma), playing the kayagum (gayageum), Arlington, Illinois, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. Part of the online Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection (AFC 1981/004). The gayageum is integral to the Republic of Korea’s “Gagok, lyric song cycles accompanied by an orchestra,” which was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

In the last post, we made our way to UNESCO’s 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, tracing some key changes in precursor definitions for what is now called ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (ICH). I will return to the ICH concept’s development, but let’s make a pit stop to look more closely at this important step towards the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Adopted at the 25th UNESCO General Conference in 1989, the Recommendation was the first standard-setting instrument of its kind with respect to living cultural heritage worldwide. Significantly, however, recommendations do not require ratification by UNESCO Member States (as is the case with the 2003 Convention); rather, they serve to encourage states to enact legislation in accordance with the principles and norms promoted through them, which is why they are sometimes referred to as ‘soft law.’ For instance, its Preamble states:

The [UNESCO] General Conference recommends that Member States should apply the following provisions concerning the safeguarding of folklore by taking whatever legislative measures or other steps may be required in conformity with the constitutional practice of each State to give effect within their territories to the principles and measures defined in this Recommendation.

Ultimately, the Recommendation’s non-legally binding nature played a substantial role in its lack of success, in addition to other factors.

In any case, understanding this as a guide for Member States to follow in order to protect ‘folklore’ within their territories, the Recommendation is divided into 7 sections (A-G), excluding the Preamble. Section A, Definition of folklore, is discussed later, but other sections deserve some attention first. In general, they lay out certain categories of safeguarding activity that national governments (appropriate bodies and/or agencies within Member States) can take: namely, identifying (B), conserving (C), preserving (D), disseminating (E), and protecting folklore (F). Together, these categories provide a glimpse into UNESCO’s interdisciplinary approach for sustaining ICH that basically remains in effect today (via an instrument that is implemented at national levels, internationally).

Two British African men standing on a stage at microphones

London-born, master reggae musician Erald “Englishman” Briscoe (left) and his apprentice, Trevor “Don Juan” McDuffs, at the 1993 showcase of Master Performers and their Apprentices of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, hosted by the AFC as part of its Neptune Plaza concert series (AFC 1993/002). Photo by Yusef El-Amin. “Reggae music of Jamaica” was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2018.

In Section B, Identification of folklore, the Recommendation rightly stresses that “as a form of cultural expression,” folklore “must be safeguarded by and for the group (familial, occupational, national, regional, religious, ethnic, etc.) whose identity it expresses.” As noted throughout this series, ensuring community, group, and individual involvement in (and ideally control over) any safeguarding approaches concerning their living cultural traditions ought to be the standard for this type of cultural heritage work.

Yet, when reading on to the ways in which such identification can be approached, communities and groups are not mentioned enough. For instance, it is advised that “Member States should encourage appropriate survey research on national, regional and international levels” as a means to “develop a national inventory of institutions concerned with folklore” and “create identification and recording systems.” Moreover, this survey research can “stimulate the creation of a standard typology of folklore by way of: (i) a general outline of folklore for global use; (ii) a comprehensive register of folklore; and (iii) regional classification of folklore, especially field-work pilot projects.” While these suggestions are not necessarily bad, they do indicate some sort of need to universalize information about folklore, its inventories and classification systems, which could be difficult since, as argued in the last post, folklore represents highly complex, nuanced, and specific cultural knowledges, traditions, practices, and expressions, distinctive to the places and spaces in which they have developed and are made meaningful today.

Nonetheless, most important here is the missing involvement of local communities and groups in this categorical first step of safeguarding activity. Indeed, this omission reflects a major critique of the Recommendation as a whole: “it is heavily weighted towards a view of ‘safeguarding’ designed with the needs of scientific researchers and government officials in mind,” as argued by scholar Janet Blake in her indispensable 2001 analysis, Developing a New Standard-setting Instrument for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Elements for Consideration. In short, as she says, “there is too much emphasis on the role of such ‘outsiders’ in the identification, dissemination and conservation of folklore.”

We can see this bias when continuing on to the next section, where the “conservation of folklore” concerns:

[The] documentation regarding folk traditions and its object is, in the event of the non-utilization or evolution of such traditions, to give researchers and tradition-bearers access to data enabling them to understand the process through which tradition changes. While living folklore, owing to its evolving character, cannot always be directly protected, folklore that has been fixed in a tangible form should be effectively protected.

In this context, “conservation” is defined as the protection of tangible, documented forms of living cultural heritage. It is implied that this is an essential aspect of overall safeguarding schemes since traditions evolve and, thus, change; therefore, a fixed ‘version’ of them ought to be obtained. It is also acknowledged that traditions may not be ‘utilized,’ which most likely indicates that they are diminishing in value to the cultural communities that call them their own and, as such, should at the very least be ‘captured’ through documentation.

Although documentation is unreservedly advantageous, these suggestions raise two key questions: who decides what to document, and who benefits from said documentation? It is noted that “tradition-bearers” should have access to the collected data, but as written, this action appears to be driven by researchers and/or other ‘outsiders.’ Ideally, they would have to be mindful of the ethical issues that come into play when researching and documenting culture. Of course, an excellent resource guide for conducting ethical and culturally-sensitive documentation is the AFC’s Folklife and Fieldwork, produced (and updated) since the late 1970s.

The fourth edition of AFC's Folklife and Fieldwork, by Stephen Winick and the late Peter Bartis, in three languages: Spanish, English, and Chinese.

The fourth edition of AFC’s Folklife and Fieldwork, by Stephen Winick and the late Peter Bartis, in three languages: Spanish, English, and Chinese. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Indeed, Section C resonates most strongly with the work of the AFC. It recommends that conserving folklore include the establishment of archives and museums (or “sections” dedicated to folklore within such institutions), as well as the training of “collectors, archivists, documentalists, and other specialists in the conservation of folklore” and “dissemination of information on folklore materials and standards of folklore work including the aspect of safeguarding.” Furthermore, such entities ought to “give precedence to ways of presenting traditional and popular cultures that emphasize the living or past aspects of those cultures.” In general, these actions describe the core work of the AFC, developed over several decades now in both preserving and presenting living cultural heritage (especially in collaboration with source communities, groups, and individuals). It is commendable that the Recommendation emphasizes the importance of documented ICH as rich resources about cultures, and the roles of archives and related institutions that serve to organize, care for and make accessible (when appropriate) these materials for source communities, researchers, and the public.

Moving along, Sections D-F pertain to preservation, dissemination, and protection of folklore, respectively. Preservation activities focus on the living and ever-changing nature of folklore by supporting the transmission of cultural communities’ traditions through economic assistance (left in vague terms) and educational endeavors (e.g. curricula), and through fostering research and access to findings. Noteworthy, however, is its recognition of cultural communities who conduct their own research and documentation, who should be supported by “guaranteeing their rights of access to their own folklore,” and that folklore represents “not only village and other rural cultures but also [that which is] created in urban areas by diverse social groups, professions, institutions, etc.” In short, the preservation of folklore in the context of the Recommendation is concerned with promoting cultural diversity, a lofty, yet significant, aim that persists in the current UNESCO-ICH paradigm.

Section E, Dissemination of folklore, relates to outward-facing, awareness raising of the importance of cultural diversity and the relationships between folklore and “cultural identity;” again, another goal of the eventual 2003 Convention. Interestingly, the suggestions therein largely align with the practices of public folklore in the U.S.: “the organization of national, regional and international events such as fairs, festivals, films, exhibitions, seminars, symposia, workshops, training courses, congresses, etc.,” including disseminating folklore via archives, museums, and curricula, as well as television, radio, and other media. It also recommends that Member States “establish full-time jobs for folklorists to stimulate and co-ordinate folklore activities in [sub-national regions],” which interestingly echoes the history and development of the public folklore infrastructure in the U.S.

Section F predominantly concerns intellectual property protections, which has been discussed in an earlier post, and Section G, International co-operation, generally calls for a greater exchange of information and knowledge about folklore and its protection across Member States, something that the 2003 Convention will structure and foster to a much greater extent.

Skipping ahead to the 2003 Convention, these aforementioned categories, or “safeguarding measures,” have been elaborated upon to comprise identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, and revitalization of ICH (definition of “safeguarding,” Article 2.3). In a sense, the 1989 Recommendation offers “version 1.0” of the UNESCO-endorsed ICH safeguarding approaches that we can consider at present.

On this note, though, I couldn’t help but think of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s sharp analysis of these activities (when examining the cultural heritage enterprise as a whole) in her chapter, World Heritage and Cultural Economics. She reminds us that at their core, “collection, documentation, preservation, presentation, evaluation, and interpretation” are basic and, yet, longstanding museum “values and methods.” As is especially the case with ICH, first and foremost embodied and changed by people, these basic, museological principles and practices are “extend[ed] to living persons, their knowledge, practices, artifacts, social worlds and life spaces” as a means for recognizing and designating their living cultural traditions as ‘cultural heritage.’ Overwhelmingly, museums – both historically and through to today – work with objects, or tangible manifestations of cultural heritage. Despite there existing great exceptions to this rule, conceptualizing the approaches for sustaining living cultural heritage as being fundamentally museological in nature is a helpful tool – as we press on in this series – for illuminating potential issues (e.g. political and ethical, among others) that can emerge within the rising UNESCO-ICH paradigm.

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