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Folklife at the International Level: The Roots of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ Part VI, World Heritage

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Fado musicians Duarte Tavares, Manuel Bulhoes, and Olivete Poulart (L-R), performing at IV Seasons Restaurant, Lowell, Massachusetts, November 14 1987. Photo by John Lueders-Booth. Part of the online Lowell Folklife Project collection (AFC 1987/042). “Fado, urban popular song of Portugal” was recognized as “intangible cultural heritage” in 2011 when inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. (Find it in the collection.)

In honor of World Intellectual Property Day, let’s get back into the realm of global cultural heritage, particularly with respect to the idea of heritage as property. In the last post, I unknotted the notion of death (via globalization and homogenization) from the tangle of concepts, values, and disciplinary legacies known as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (ICH). Continuing on this path, which I admit can get rather twisty, requires yet another detour: UNESCO’s 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Understanding the structure and aims of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, through which the concept of ICH is defined and applied (and to which this series is headed), calls for a review of the 1972 Convention, a key model for the ICH framework of today.

It is true that the 1972 Convention, also called the “World Heritage Convention,” largely relates to tangible cultural heritage – that which is human-made, such as the Great Wall of China, and natural, such as the Great Barrier Reef, as well as places and spaces that are imbued with cultural meanings and values, such as cultural landscapes (“mixed” heritage sites). Nevertheless, despite its mostly tangible focus, fundamental mechanisms by which the 1972 Convention designates and valorizes heritage sites as “World Heritage,” in the name of preservation, have been carried into the ICH framework, and some of its underlying notions, values, and approaches ought to be examined here.

One notion that already rears its head concerns the apparent dichotomy between tangible and intangible heritage. That, for a while now, we have two international (and wildly popular) conventions, each dedicated to one side of what can be argued to be the same coin, tends to treat – and in turn protect – them separately. Yet, for many peoples around the world, tangible and intangible heritage are inseparable in conception, belief, and practice. Moreover, this false dichotomy stands in the way of conceiving heritage more holistically, or even ecologically, as touched upon in my previous post. As Laurajane Smith notes: “if heritage is a mentality, a way of knowing and seeing, then all heritage, in a sense, becomes ‘intangible.’”

Significantly, this dichotomy signals the deep embeddedness of Western values in the global heritage idea. Up until the introduction of ICH in recent decades, heritage – in the context of Western hegemony – was predominantly defined as tangible, grand, monumental, and, at its historical heart, (Western) European. As such, ICH policy can be viewed as a turn-of-the-century corrective measure, dematerializing the longstanding and dominant notion of heritage as tangible. In 2004, Harriet Deacon et al. explained: “[t]here is no technical need to have separate international instruments for the safeguarding of tangible and intangible heritage, although having two separate heritage registers may assist in redressing past inequalities.” Conversely, they cautioned that this separation may “perpetuate the idea that the heritage of the West is tangible, ‘civilised’ and separable from the ‘intangible’ heritage of the developing world.” In this light, the tangible/intangible dichotomy becomes Western/non-Western (with a whiff of the theory of cultural evolution from early anthropology), so hold that thought.

Carving of Angkor Wat by Sorn Veuk in his home in Lowell, Massachusetts, September 17, 1987. Photo by Douglas DeNatale. Part of the online Lowell Folklife Project collection (AFC 1987/042). Angkor Wat was recognized as World Heritage in 1992 when it was inscribed (as part of the “Angkor archaeological site”) on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. (Find it in the Collection.)

Emerging out of post-World-War-II reconstruction in Europe, a period of swift political, economic, and sociocultural change, the 1972 Convention has sought to – above all – safeguard heritage sites against their destruction. Its preamble opens on the now-familiar, sobering note that “the cultural heritage and the natural heritage are increasingly threatened with destruction not only by the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions which aggravate the situation with even more formidable phenomena of damage or destruction.” Accordingly, each State Party to the Convention, of which there are currently 193, “will do all it can” in “ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage [as defined in the Convention] situated in its territory,” a duty that “belongs primarily to that State” (see Articles 4-7).

Almost half a century old, the 1972 Convention is considered a great success and just about as widespread as an international instrument can be.[1] Crucially, however, its popularity owes much – if not everything – to its central mechanism for promoting cultural heritage awareness, protection, and management worldwide: a list. At present, the World Heritage List comprises 1,092 properties (“cultural,” “natural,” and “mixed”) representing 167 States Parties. In brief: nominations are put forward by States Parties, and a World Heritage Committee, composed of twenty-one States Parties representatives, selects the properties that are to be inscribed onto the List and, thereby, valorized as “World Heritage.”[2] Here, a new category of heritage, the often-capitalized “World Heritage,” has gained great strength over five decades of development, ushering in a potent hierarchization of heritage categories in the global heritage enterprise.

Taking a step back, it is worth remembering Valdimar Tr. Hafstein’s points on heritage as, essentially, a social construction – a category with “performative power.” He argues:

[C]ultural heritage is a new category of things, lumped together in novel ways under its rubric; things as motley as buildings, monuments, swords, songs, jewelry, visual patterns, religious paraphernalia, literature, healing dances, and woodcarving traditions. The things themselves are not new, but the category is, and heritage is a new way to think about them and offers new ways to act on them.

Adding lists into the mix not only reinforces a category’s parameters, buttressing its boundaries, but creates them, as well, through some sort of agreed-upon criteria. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett describes this as a “metacultural operation,” and explains: “World heritage is first and foremost a list. Everything on the list, whatever its previous context, is now placed in a relationship with other masterpieces. The list is the context for everything on it.” Of course, hand in hand with any listing and categorization exercise is a process of selection, casting in high relief the political dimensions of heritage at its core. With this in mind, I pose a question, one that I could ask in just about every post in this Folklife at the International Level series: who are the gatekeepers of these heritage categories, and how are their decisions made?

The rise of World Heritage via the 1972 Convention and its World Heritage List brought cultural heritage to a new level of international concern, “confirming the presence of ‘heritage’ as an international issue,” as Laurajane Smith notes. Indeed, Smith keenly observes how global heritage charters and conventions use lofty and rousing language to draw its readers into a “fellowship” with their institutional authors (e.g. UNESCO). As she describes, they position readers as “adherents to the particular set of commonsense assumptions, values, and meanings the [document] shapes and communicates” through, for instance, appeals to our senses of “duty” to, and “respect” for, cultural heritage, “acknowledging” and “upholding” its “universal” and “outstanding” importance for all “humanity,” with the exalted – and hard to argue against – goal of protecting it for future generations. Importantly, Smith highlights how a main readership of these charters and conventions – the fellows in fellowship with and committed to these instruments’ tenets and values – are heritage professionals and academics, the experts who are part of a “community of expertise” and called upon in making global heritage decisions.

It is also clear that one major criterion for valorizing heritage at the international level is that it somehow qualifies as “universal;” and at the same time, in an almost two-for-one package, the heritage is “outstanding,” too. On UNESCO’s World Heritage List criteria webpage, it states: “[t]o be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria” (emphasis mine). Scrolling down to the first criterion, it reads that properties (ought to) “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius,” with the adjectives, “outstanding,’ “superlative,” “unique,” “exceptional,” and “important,” threaded throughout the other nine. As discussed in an earlier post, universalizing heritage, including living cultural traditions, is nothing new, but it sure seems that judging cultural heritage based on these criteria could prove to be rather subjective, problematic…and highly political. In future posts, we will explore these precise issues in relation to – Spoiler Alert! – the international listing of ICH. This is where that Western/non-Western division of heritage types (i.e. tangible/intangible) mentioned earlier comes into play.

Nonetheless, let’s jump down for a moment to World Heritage at the national level. It is important to stress the influence of the 1972 Convention in cementing national-level claims to heritage sites ‘situated in national territories,’ via the notions of ‘heritage as property’ and ‘belonging to the State,’ especially heightened when a site (being nominated for list inscription) may be “claimed” by more than one State (“transboundary properties”). Although there is a longer history of heritage, as well as folklore, being used as a tool for nation building (see for instance Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum), here we have a certain national branding of heritage sites on an international stage, in international agreement. As we continue in this series, it will be important to remember how this territorialization of heritage, as a concept and category, is international in scope and also very much tied to national title and, dare I say, ownership and prestige. Jan Turtinen articulates this twofold, national-international mobilization of heritage well by stating: “what World Heritage suggests is not (only) nations or ethnic groups as imagined communities, but rather humankind as a moral and imagined community.”

In coming posts, I will draw on conceptual and practical aspects of the World Heritage paradigm that the 2003 Convention and resultant ICH global infrastructure have inherited and made their own. Key takeaways, here, relate to the dichotomous, universal, outstanding, and deeply political nature of the dominant heritage idea, as well as the approach of listing heritage as a means for its preservation. As always, we will continue to look back on early anthropology and folklore and the legacies they bring to the identification, designation/valorization, safeguarding and promotion of heritage today.


  1. The U.S. ratified UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention in 1973; however, since January 2019, the U.S. has officially withdrawn from UNESCO.
  2. There also exists UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.


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