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Folklife at the International Level: Roots of Intangible Cultural Heritage Part VII, Treasures

Estefania performing as part of the AFC’s 1985 Neptune Plaza Concert Series that featured renowned Spanish flamenco dancer Ana Martínez. Photo by Reid Baker. Flamenco was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

In Part VI, we examined UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention and some of its underlying notions and approaches that have influenced the development of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) framework of today. In particular, I singled out its use of listing – namely, the World Heritage List – as a mechanism for preservation by drawing global attention to the heritage sites inscribed thereon. Moreover, the requirement that listed sites be of “outstanding universal value” was flagged as Western in conception and political in application, especially in terms of who gets to decide and, thereby, designate certain places as World Heritage. With respect to ICH, these issues came in to serious play during the 1990s with the introduction of two major initiatives – the Living Human Treasures Program and the Proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – as explored in these next couple of posts.

Musician playing a khaen (mouth organ) at a Laotian New Year’s celebration, Lowell Girl’s Club, Lowell, Massachusetts, April 16, 1988. Photo by John Lueders-Booth. Part of the Lowell Folklife project Collection, 1987. Find the original photo here. “Khaen music of the Lao people” was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017. Find the archival scan here.

On the heels of the 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, whose intentions ultimately fell short (the topic of a future discussion), UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Program (changed from “Non-Physical Cultural Heritage Program” in 1992) was looking to set in motion more concerted ICH efforts worldwide. Against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War, as well as continued decolonization and, thus, rising independence for ethnic groups worldwide, expressing traditional culture, and in turn promoting it, was gaining currency – especially at national government levels. Moreover, as the director of UNESCO’s ICH program at the time, Noriko Aikawa-Faure, points out, this was a period of “rapid expansion of the market economy throughout the world and the tremendous progress of information and communication technology began to transform the world into a uniform economic and cultural space.” Here, the intertwined force of globalization and homogenization, as discussed previously, became even more influential in advancing international cultural policy that sought, among other aims, to counter it.

In 1993, UNESCO organized a conference of eighty-one “experts, representatives of research institutions, private foundations and observers” from thirty countries to set “new directions” for its ICH program, as stated in its final report. All participants “stressed the moral influence of UNESCO and its role as a catalyst and creator of an awareness of the need to safeguard the intangible heritage” (emphasis mine). Not only does this belief serve to put UNESCO firmly on its path to becoming the leading, global body for safeguarding traditional culture, but it certainly shows how powerful and, thereby, unquestionable its mission ought to be, appealing first and foremost to the shared senses of virtue and duty of a fellow “community of expertise,” as asserted by scholar Laurajane Smith and examined in the last post.

Arguably, it also reflects an assumption that ‘awareness of the need to safeguard ICH’ was lacking. While it may be true that awareness-raising efforts were and are needed internationally, especially in the face of globalization and cultural misappropriation, it is also possible that source communities already recognized (and recognize) the importance of their cultural practices and expressions and, by extension, the need to care about them. In 2007, Richard Kurin, the then director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, rightly reminded us that if a “tradition is still alive, vital and sustainable in a community, then it is safeguarded.” In this light, source community members should also be considered as experts of the safeguarding of their living cultural traditions, with seats opened up for them at the tables in these international policy-making meetings, a situation that has gradually improved over recent years.

Nevertheless, source communities, or “actors and exponents of the great intangible heritages,” as described in the 1993 conference report, were certainly considered important in protecting ICH at this time – more so than is reflected in the 1989 Recommendation. Indeed, conference participants acknowledged a range of ICH features for which safeguarding approaches should account, and that underscore the central role communities need to play. In particular, the transmission, or passing on, of living cultural traditions – and the embodied knowledge, meanings, and skills they represent – to younger generations was viewed as a critical pathway that should be supported for ensuring sustainability. On this, they explained that a “tradition or a culture was never static and that it would be pointless to attempt to preserve a denatured and mummified heritage. The essential task was felt to reside in transmission of the heritage to the younger generations which must be effectively motivated.”

Joana Del Rio (left) and Estefania performing as part of the AFC’s 1985 Neptune Plaza Concert Series that featured the renowned Spanish flamenco dancer Ana Martínez, seated in the background. Photo by Reid Baker. Flamenco was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.

Significantly, one participant, Ambassador Sang-Seek Park of the Republic of Korea, proposed that UNESCO encourage its Member States to adopt the “Living Human Treasures” system, which in varying forms has been instituted since the mid-20th century in his home country, as well as in Japan, and later Thailand and the Philippines, among others. Its basic premise is that certain masters of living cultural traditions are selected and subsidized by their national governments to pass on their cultural expertise to younger practitioners as a means of keeping particular traditions alive. Successful in his proposal, UNESCO began in 1993 to invest substantial time and effort in promoting the program to Member States. In its Guidelines for the Establishment of National “Living Human Treasures” Systems, Living Human Treasures are people who:

[P]ossess to a very high degree the knowledge and skills required for performing or recreating specific elements of the intangible cultural heritage. Each Member State should choose an appropriate title to designate the bearers of knowledge and skills, the title of “Living Human Treasures” proposed by UNESCO being indicative. Among the systems in existence, there are already a variety of titles: Master of Art (France), Bearer of Popular Craft Tradition (Czech Republic), National Living Treasure (Republic of Korea), Holder of an Important Intangible Cultural Property (Japan and Republic of Korea).

As such, UNESCO recommended Member States to:

[…] grant official recognition to talented tradition bearers and practitioners, thus contributing to the transmission of their knowledge and skills to the younger generations. States selected such persons on the basis of their accomplishments and of their willingness to convey their knowledge and skills to others. The selection was also based on the value of the traditions and expressions concerned as a testimony of the human creative genius, their roots in cultural and social traditions, their representative character for a given community, as well as their risk of disappearance.

UNESCO ran this program from 1993 until the adoption of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. As Janet Blake explained in 2002, the original intention was for Member States to “submit to UNESCO a list of ‘Living Human Treasures’ in their country for inclusion in a future UNESCO World List,” similar in idea to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as established via the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Here, we see that listing remained the go-to method for promoting and safeguarding all types of heritage, including ICH from the 1990s onward. In a sense, the international lists established through the 2003 Convention, as we shall examine, subsumed this Living Human Treasures idea. Nonetheless, the legacies of this precursor program live on in many countries, including here, in the U.S., as explored in the next post of this series.

Since we are in the 1990s, it is important to highlight the influence of East Asian Member States, especially Japan, in shaping UNESCO’s ICH efforts at this time. With UNESCO’s official endorsement of the Living Human Treasures system, already long established in South Korea and Japan, a more prominent role was awarded to people – or “tradition bearers” – in these budding schemes for sustaining ICH globally. In its Living Human Treasures Systems Guidelines, UNESCO states:

One effective way of safeguarding [ICH] is to conserve it by collecting, recording, and archiving. And an even more effective way is to ensure that the bearers of the heritage continue to acquire knowledge and skills and transmit them to future generations.

In his recent book, Valdimar Hafstein notes that these ‘collecting, recording, and archiving’ approaches toward safeguarding heritage are Western in origin, but with Aikawa-Faure leading the way, UNESCO’s ICH program was steered “toward the Japanese/Korean model of Living Human Treasures,” a more dynamic, people-based orientation.

UNESCO’s ICH program was also considerably boosted by yearly sponsorship from Japan, beginning in 1993. In the report from that year’s ICH conference, the Japanese Government is thanked for its $250,000 contribution, which greatly helped in making it possible; and through 2007, 12 million USD had been provided by the Japan Funds-in-Trust for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, as its sponsorship was called. Both scholars Natsuko Akagawa and Hafstein contend that Japan has strategically used its decades-long membership in UNESCO, particularly with respect to its cultural heritage activities, for “strengthening its presence on the international stage,” in Akagawa’s words. As a soft power form of foreign policy strategy, Hafstein explains:

As may be gleaned from this, the Japan/UNESCO Funds-in-Trust is a telling example of the extent to which member countries can influence a multilateral organization like UNESCO (where ambitions always outpace resources) through voluntary contributions to their preferred projects and policy areas, translating economic power into moral leadership.

Greatly bolstering this leadership role was the election of the Japanese diplomat, Koichiro Matsuura, to head UNESCO as its Director General from 1999-2009. According to Hafstein, Matsuura was known especially for ‘really, really pushing through’ ICH efforts during his tenure, successfully leading to the 2003 Convention. This first included, though, building-out on a global scale the Living Human Treasures listing idea, which a couple of years later took the form of the Proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the second key UNESCO program developed during this busy decade.

Before turning to the Masterpieces Programme, initiated in 1997 and launched in 2000, the following post in this series will make a stop here, in Washington, D.C. As mentioned, the Living Human Treasures program inspired quite a number of comparable programs across the world, including the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowships in the U.S. We will hear from the director of Folk and Traditional Arts at the NEA, folklorist Clifford Murphy, about the program and its history. In fact, the 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellows, recipients of the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, have just been announced, so click on through to read more!

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