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Folklife at the International Level: Happy Anniversary to the 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian Meeting

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Călușul, a Romanian folk ensemble from Optași, Olt, performs at the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Team dances, usually men’s dances, are common in Romanian traditional dance. More information, including this photo and others, is available online here. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collection, Smithsonian Institution.

The Folklife at the International Level series has set out on a winding road, tracing the concept of “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH) as developed through a series of international initiatives over the course of the late 20th century. As the signs posted throughout have indicated, this road leads to the global framework for ICH promotion and safeguarding that continues to strengthen today as a result of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

We are just about ready to step into the 21st century, but there is still one more important pit stop to make. We last left off in the 1990s, when UNESCO efforts were consolidating to raise global awareness of ICH and the support that is needed in sustaining it for the future. This last stop, however, takes us again to Washington, DC: to a June 1999 conference jointly organized by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) and UNESCO. Entitled, “A Global Assessment of the 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of the Traditional Culture and Folklore: Local Empowerment and International Cooperation,” the conference brought together thirty-seven participants – researchers, heritage professionals, government and UNESCO representatives – from twenty-seven countries, in addition to “scores of additional observers,” as noted in the publication edited by Peter Seitel, Safeguarding Traditional Cultures: A Global Assessment, that came out of it.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UNESCO-Smithsonian conference (and 30 years since the 1989 Recommendation made its debut), and it was recently commemorated through a discussion forum convened at the American Folklore Society (AFS) Annual Meeting in Baltimore (October 17, 2019), organized by former Programme Specialist in (and current consultant for) ICH at UNESCO Frank Proschan and myself. Before discussing this forum, and in turn the 1999 conference, it is worth noting that the contributions of U.S.-based folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and other specialists in the then-budding UNESCO-ICH framework have sometimes been overlooked. Surely, this has not been helped by the fact that the U.S. withdrew its membership from UNESCO in 1984, lasting until 2003, and again at the end of this past year. As such, one objective of the recent AFS forum was to recognize the contributions of such scholars and professionals in shaping not only the 2003 Convention, but also related initiatives through their involvement in international meetings in the lead-up to the 2003 Convention and after, as well as their enhancement of cultural heritage policy, scholarship, and discourse.

A page from the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Program book featuring a basket weaver from Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. The entire program in pdf format is available online here.

It goes without saying that each forum participant is highly distinguished, having worn a range of scholarly and professional hats. Although it would be too lengthy to list all of their titles and accomplishments here, calling attention to their longtime contributions to global ICH efforts is necessary. In this light, the forum brought together: Anthony Seeger, the head of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings at the time, and Richard Kurin, the then Director of CFCH, who were both instrumental in finding support for and planning the 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian conference. Kurin’s involvement extended from the conference to numerous activities over the ensuing decades, as he served on the UNESCO-convened International Jury for the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, as well as participated in the drafting and discussion of the 2003 Convention at UNESCO, in addition to other endeavors discussed later.

The forum also included: Diana N’Diaye, a cultural specialist at CFCH and conference observer, who was also involved in subsequent UNESCO-ICH meetings, such as the 2006 “Expert Meeting on Community Involvement in Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage: Towards the Implementation of the 2003 Convention” in Tokyo, co-organized by the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO; Barry Bergey, the then Director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the National Endowment for the Arts, who participated in a number of UNESCO meetings during the drafting of the 2003 Convention and well after its adoption; and Peggy Bulger, former Director of the American Folklife Center, who over several years contributed to the debates on and drafting of a potential, international instrument aimed at protecting “Traditional Cultural Expressions,” as part of the ongoing efforts of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as previously explored. It should be noted that Bulger participated in international ICH meetings following the Convention’s 2003 adoption, and Bergey was involved with WIPO activities, as well. Furthermore, certain AFS forum attendees, such as CFCH folklorist and curator Olivia Cadaval, should also be acknowledged for their contributions to these turn-of-the-21st century ICH activities.

During this crucial period when the global infrastructure for promoting and protecting living cultural traditions was solidifying, they raised important questions – particularly with respect to local-level community participation – that remain pertinent today. At the recent AFS forum, participants were able to reflect on these issues and offer their assessments on the current state of safeguarding folklife at the international level, over a decade since the 2003 Convention was adopted and entered into force (2006), and as WIPO’s longtime work unfolds (spoiler alert: they are “cautiously optimistic”). Indeed, their questions and concerns will be echoed in upcoming posts as we explore the Convention, its goals, and the ways in which this UNESCO-ICH framework attempts to achieve them.

In order to step back to the milestone 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian conference, we need to go back to the 1989 Recommendation, examined earlier. To refresh our memories: the 1989 Recommendation did not require ratification by UNESCO Member States (as is the case with the 2003 Convention). Rather, it served to encourage states to enact legislation in accordance with the principles and norms promoted through it, which – in the years following its adoption – was not happening to the extent that had been hoped. In response, UNESCO sent a questionnaire to Member States in 1994 to, in Kurin’s words, “ascertain the impact of the Recommendation and gather information about the policies and practices in those nations.” As the 1999 conference’s title suggests, the 1989 Recommendation was used as a launching pad for assessing its strengths and weaknesses and, by extension, proposing “measures that need to be taken” for more effective safeguarding of what eventually became known as “ICH.” The results of the UNESCO questionnaire were used for conference discussions (as analyzed and presented by Kurin).

Fast-forwarding to the 1999 conference brings us to Seeger’s opening presentation during the 2019 AFS forum. He began by setting the stage on how the conference came to fruition, a story in which he was a key protagonist. Despite the fact that the U.S. was not a member of UNESCO, Noriko Aikawa-Faure, the then Chief of ICH at UNESCO, had asked Seeger if such a meeting in the U.S. could be convened due to his position from 1997 to 1999 as President of the International Council of Traditional Music, a non-governmental organization in formal consultative relations with UNESCO. (Seeger later served as its Secretary General from 2001 until 2005.) Seeger then brought this inquiry (and opportunity) to Kurin and – long story short – they made it happen, thanks also to a number of people and support from the Smithsonian, the NEA, the U.S. Department of State, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the UNESCO-Japan Funds in Trust (which we discussed in a prior post). Kurin noted that regardless of its non-membership during this time, the U.S. remained “interested” in UNESCO programs, and was not completely closed off from engaging with them.

A demonstration of traditional foodways is presented at the Gateways to Romania program, 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The rich and diverse cuisine of Romania is one of the country’s treasures, as Romanian cooking combines the hearty meats and vegetables of Central Europe with the aromatic herbs and spices of the Mediterranean and lands farther east. More information, including this photo and others, is available online here. Courtesy of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collection, Smithsonian Institution.

Significantly, the 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian conference was organized to coincide with the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, at which cultural expressions and traditions from South Africa, Romania, and New Hampshire, among others, were featured. Kurin explained that this was an important backdrop for the conference, as its participants had the chance to see community members “holding the microphone” and speaking for themselves, presenting and demonstrating their own cultural traditions for wider publics. This was critical since, as Seeger commented, the 1989 Recommendation, a focus of the 1999 conference, “lacked community participation;” it was crafted more for an audience of folklorists, archivists, and allied researchers and professionals, who were attentive to sustaining traditional culture, but provided little role for those who embody, practice, and change it.

Quoting his former colleague at CFCH, James Counts Early, Kurin reiterated in the recent forum that there is “no folklore without the folk!” Indeed, the 1999 conference was viewed as an opportunity for “elevating community engagement and participation as a priority” in international ICH discourse and initiatives – that is, such work was not only about “the singing of songs, but also about impacting people and helping cultural communities to make a living,” as he contended. Unsurprisingly, community participation was one of the main points of discussion during the conference, as strongly reflected in the Action Plan that its participants drew up. For instance, in its Preamble (Part A), it is stated that “the exclusion of traditional groups from decision-making concerning the safeguarding of traditional culture and folkore” is “deplored,” with great emphasis placed throughout the rest of the Plan on community collaboration and, in essence, respect for ICH communities’ autonomy and expertise.

Community participation remains – in 2019 – one of the most discussed and written about topics in relation to the UNESCO-ICH framework, as we will continue to examine in upcoming posts. As for the AFS forum, it, too, emerged as a common theme threaded through all presentations. From her involvement in early UNESCO-ICH efforts, Diana N’Diaye had raised questions then that centered on community involvement and ownership. In particular, she was most interested in: first, how “community is and ought to be defined” in these global policies; and second, how community ownership over cultural traditions is identified, honored, and operationalized through them. She recalled that the 2006 Expert Meeting on Community Involvement was vital for “starting important conversations among government officials and, sometimes, at the community level, too.” This led her to advocate for the training of cultural communities to “do their own research and documentation work,” especially in terms of the identification of ICH that such policies, including the eventual 2003 Convention, recommend as first steps in safeguarding. Ultimately, N’Diaye feels that the 2003 Convention is a “flawed tool, but a useful and important tool, nonetheless;” it could be used to educate policy makers and governmental officials on the need for community involvement. She suggested that it is best to view the instrument as a “working document” since it is still in the (relatively) early years of being implemented across the world.

2005 NEA National Heritage Fellow Michael Doucet with his portrait at an exhibition featuring the NEA National Heritage Fellowships program at UNESCO, Paris, 2010. Photo by Barry Bergey. Doucet appeared at the Library of Congress in 2017, and you can view his concert and oral history here.

Barry Bergey’s presentation situated these global ICH efforts in the broader UNESCO policyscape of the time, outlining that from the 1990s onwards, the organization sought to develop policies on sustainable cultural development, protecting cultural diversity, and, of course, safeguarding cultural heritage. The 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian conference represented a “confluence of these three main forces,” and citing the 1996 report, Our Creative Diversity, of UNESCO’s World Commission on Culture and Development, Bergey noted that “development without culture is growth without a soul” was a motto driving the broader efforts within which the conference was couched.

Interestingly, Bergey explained that it was the drafting and adoption of UNESCO’s 2005 Convention for the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions that was most desired by Member States, but that the 2003 ICH Convention had to come first (mainly due to former UNESCO Secretary General Matsuura’s strong interest in ICH, as previously highlighted in this series). Thus, the 2003 Convention was, as Bergey stated, “fast tracked” into existence in order to get to the 2005 Convention (to be covered in future posts). In addition to sharing his experiences from a number of UNESCO and WIPO meetings during this period, he ended on an optimistic note: the U.S. ought to become a State Party to the 2003 Convention as it may serve as a tool for encouraging better collaboration across agencies, organizations, institutions, and networks across the country.

Last but not least, Peggy Bulger’s presentation, From WIPO to UNESCO: Who Owns and Protects Culture?, critically engaged with both UNESCO and WIPO efforts, surfacing fundamental challenges that they both share – challenges that have “remained the same” as when she first became involved in these global debates. One such issue relates to how these frameworks foster national claims to cultural traditions, an inevitable consequence of the operational structures of these two intergovernmental organizations of the UN System. For cultural communities at the local level, this can raise a whole host of political (and economic) challenges, as these frameworks may invite national ownership over local cultural traditions, as well as undesired governmental intervention into subsequent promotional and protective measures. Similarly, Bulger stressed that in this time of widespread migration across political boundaries and borders, a system that empowers national claims over cultural expressions can prove to be too “unrealistic” and, thereby, incapable of effective safeguarding.

Bulger focused on another, fundamental hurdle that can stand in the way of carrying out effective (and ethical) safeguarding approaches: that is, the continued reliance on Western concepts of legal (intellectual property) protections, particularly in reference to WIPO’s ongoing initiatives. (Although, as touched upon before, this can be stretched to also include the dominant, Western definitions of “cultural heritage,” and the often-false dichotomy of “tangible” and “intangible” heritage that is employed in their global application.) Recalling statements she made as part of the U.S. Delegation to WIPO years ago, Bulger reiterated the importance of actively embracing Indigenous, ‘non-Western’ conceptualizations of cultural sustainability and protection, which at the least would include their integration into Western legal systems. With this, she closed with her belief that communities must have control over their own cultural traditions, practices, and expressions and “according to their own local and/or tribal norms.” As N’Diaye also stated, and echoing the views shared by Seeger, Kurin, and Bergey, Bulger made a case that that this is where folklorists and allied professionals may be of the most service to cultural communities – through the facilitation of training in cultural documentation (and related methods) that would be shaped at the local level under the guidance of cultural communities themselves.

As this series moves into the 21st century, it is important to spotlight more recent efforts of forum participants in terms of advocating for the 2003 Convention within the U.S. Kurin, N’Diaye, Bergey and Bulger were part of an interagency group that, as characterized by N’Diaye, argued for the U.S. ratification of the Convention. In fact, Kurin wrote the formal brief for the U.S. Department of State on the 2003 Convention, advocated for consideration of the Convention as a Secretary of State-appointed member of the U.S. Commission for UNESCO, published several articles on the Convention, advised UNESCO Director-General on strategy with regard to the Convention, and communicated closely and regularly with UNESCO staff about the Convention’s implementation. In recent correspondence, he adds:

Along with others, I have strongly and numerous times argued that while I think the Convention has real problems, it nonetheless has value in providing government and community attention to, consideration of, and resources for ICH – and that perhaps its best chances of future success is that community cultural advocates, knowledgeable scholars, and empathetic officials around the world will take it seriously and use it as a means to achieve its stated aspirations. That dream or vision is what crystallized at the 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian conference.

On behalf of Frank Proschan and myself, a sincere thanks goes to the distinguished AFS forum participants. Their insights, based on longstanding and continuing contributions to these global efforts, provide much food for thought as we continue along the path to exploring the 2003 Convention, its impacts, and the issues that have emerged in its wake. Their contributions and perspectives will certainly be revisited.



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