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Folklife at the International Level: Intangible Cultural Heritage Defined

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Mr. Michael Huminiak posing near samples of his traditional Ukrainian ceramic work in his dining room in Roselle, Illinois, June 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Part of the AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection; view the archival scan here. The tradition of Kosiv painted ceramics of Ukraine was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019.

If this series is a mountain, I am pleased to say that we are now climbing up to its peak: an examination of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is through the 2003 Convention that the concept and category of “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH) – as used globally today – was born. Although, as the series has shown, “ICH” draws on a much longer history of pre-cursor initiatives, recommendations, and definitions, as well as conceptual legacies stretching back to early anthropology and (heritage) preservationist movements.

Almost two decades old, the 2003 Convention was adopted without dissenting vote at the 32nd UNESCO General Conference in October 2003, entering into force in 2006. Since 2004, 178 States Parties have accepted and/or ratified it. As there are 193 Member States of UNESCO, it is safe to assume that the Convention and “ICH” category are becoming increasingly known across the world as a result of this widespread embrace.

This post will focus on the final reshaping of the ICH definition and, thus, concept in the lead up to 2003. Earlier in this series, the definition for “ICH,” as explicitly stated in Article 2 of the Convention, was presented as a destination for where this series was heading, and used as a measure of all that had come before: its conceptual roots and definitional changes over time, as well as its connections to World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) efforts, in the area of intellectual property protections.

Once again, ICH is officially defined as:

[…] the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.

Moreover, it is further categorized as being “manifested inter alia” in these “domains:”

(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
(b) performing arts;
(c) social practices, rituals and festive events;
(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
(e) traditional craftsmanship.

To review, here is the definition for what became “ICH” that was put forward in UNESCO’s 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of the Traditional Culture and Folklore:

Folklore (or traditional and popular culture) is the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group or individuals and recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity; its standards and values are transmitted orally, by imitation or by other means. Its forms are, among others, language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts.

It is clear that in the span of fourteen years, the ICH concept had greatly evolved, thanks to the dynamic 1990s: a busy decade of UNESCO-ICH programs, discourse, and debates, as previously explored. What is most evident, however, is that the term “folklore” (along with “traditional and popular culture”) was left behind, and that a relatively broader set of ICH “domains” was added to clarify its scope as opposed to offering examples of some “forms” ICH can take.

Mr. Michael Huminiak’s vases and plates decorated in what he identified as Hutsulian (Hutsul, Hutsulan) style, at his home in Roselle, Illinois, in June, 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. Part of the AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection; view the archival scan here. The tradition of Kosiv painted ceramics of Ukraine was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2019.

The last post in this series examined the influential 1999 UNESCO-Smithsonian conference, and mentioned the Action Plan that its participants drew up. Indeed, in the Plan’s Preamble (Part A), the second point of action suggests a move away from using “folklore” in any future international instrument (the eventual 2003 Convention), which is stated as:

Bearing in mind that the term “folklore” has generally been considered inappropriate, but emphasizing the importance of its definition as it stands in the 1989 [Recommendation], while recommending a study on more appropriate terminology, and provisionally continuing to use the term “folklore,” along with “oral heritage,” “traditional knowledge and skills,” “intangible heritage,” “forms of knowing, being, and doing,” among other terms, all of which, for the purposes of this recommendation, we consider to be equivalent to “traditional culture and folklore” in the definition of the aforementioned 1989 Recommendation[.] (Italics in original.)

These considerations came into play during the lead up to the Convention, between 2001 and 2003, when the ICH-related terminology and definition were debated and finalized at a series of international ‘expert’ meetings and roundtable discussions (comprising folklorists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, historians, and lawyers, among others). At the first of these meetings, held in Turin, Italy in 2001, participants drafted the following working definition:

[P]eoples’ learned processes along with the knowledge, skills and creativity that inform and are developed by them, the products they create, and the resources, spaces and other aspects of social and natural context necessary to their sustainability; these processes provide living communities with a sense of continuity with previous generations and are important to cultural identity, as well as to the safeguarding of cultural diversity and creativity of humanity”[.]

Ethnomusicologist Wim van Zanten participated as a “government expert” of the Netherlands in later meetings (2002-2003), and reports in his 2004 article that the Turin definition was considered “too academic” and abstract for the purposes of the Convention, which was being drafted at the time.

Folklorist Peter Seitel elaborated on the removal of “folklore” in his paper, Defining the Scope and Term Intangible Cultural Heritage, presented at UNESCO’s “international expert meeting” in 2002: “Intangible Cultural Heritage: Priority Domains for an International Convention” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He explained:

[T]he connotational flaws of terms like “folklore” and “traditional cultures,” which have evolved from an earlier system of colonialist thought and domination, were felt to be far more serious. Thus, [they] were dropped as the rubric under which policy is to be developed. Because of its relative lack of history, the term ICH, specified according to a consensus reached by culture bearers, academics, administrators, and other culture workers involved in the UNESCO meetings can serve policy development without the semantic connotations accrued through decades of cultural discrimination and restricted public participation.

In her 2009 essay, Noriko Aikawa-Faure, the former Chief of ICH at UNESCO, recalls that other terms debated at the time included: “traditional culture,” which was considered “opposed to modernity;” “treasures,” determined to be paternalistic in tone; and “oral heritage,” which was viewed as too limited in scope. “ICH,” as a term, was also considered somewhat problematic due to the fact that in a great many cultures across the world, the distinction between tangible and intangible heritage simply does not exist (as mentioned in earlier posts). Janet Blake, in her 2001 Preliminary Study into the Advisability of Developing a New Standard-setting Instrument for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (‘Traditional Culture and Folklore’), presented at the Turin meeting, warns that “ICH” represents a “false category.” She argued:

[A] false category in the sense that all material elements of cultural heritage have important intangible values associated with them that are the reason for their protection. Furthermore, it is a distinction that is unacceptable to many indigenous and local cultures that are the holders of the cultural traditions that fall into this category of ‘intangible heritage’ since it does not reflect their holistic view of culture and heritage. It also reflects a Eurocentric view of cultural heritage that has traditionally valued monuments and sites over the intangible values associated with them.

In any case, though, the participating experts decided that the tangible-intangible distinction ought to remain, mainly because the 1972 World Heritage Convention is predominantly focused on tangible heritage and an overlap between the two conventions would be redundant, as noted by Van Zanten. Yet, reference was made to tangible manifestations of ICH, specifically “the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith,” as stated in its definition above.

Folklorist Robert Klymasz interviewing Mr. Huminiak in his home for the AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project in June 1977. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer. View the archival scan here. Klymasz mentioned in his field notes that Mr. Huminiak taught “Ukrainian Folk Art Classes,” with his daughter’s assistance, at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago. Listen to an interview with Mr. Huminiak here.

On a final note, participants at these meetings also expressed the need to limit the wide and varied concept of ICH to specific “domains,” as outlined above, in order to clarify the Convention’s overall scope. Similarly, issues concerning human rights were also discussed in relation to the scope of the ICH definition. Van Zanten notes:

There are forms of intangible cultural heritage that are very damaging to other groups. Obviously, UNESCO does not want to safeguard intangible cultural heritage that advocates apartheid, mutilation of women, or severely harms other groups of individuals by any other means. Should this restriction be included in the definition of intangible cultural heritage?

Ultimately, a phrase referring to human rights concerns was included. Of course, there were other issues and debates that shaped the drafting of the ICH definition and domain, but in the end, the relatively neutral and baggage-less term “intangible cultural heritage” was agreed upon. In order to keep climbing what is turning out to be quite a tall mountain, we will next move on to exploring how the 2003 Convention operates at international and national levels as a means of achieving its overarching aim of keeping cultural traditions alive.

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