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Understanding Intangible Cultural Heritage

10 October 2019

Three men play traditional music with violins and accordion.

It’s not an understatement to say that intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is an essential ingredient in healthy communities and sustainable development.

But what is intangible cultural heritage, anyway?

The easiest way to understand it is to recall what each word means on its own.

Heritage is something that is passed down through generations. Culture refers to values, traditions, and identities. And intangible means impossible to touch.

Putting those words back together, intangible cultural heritage refers to the traditions and living expressions that are transmitted from one generation to the next. You can think of it as “living heritage.” Examples include community gatherings, oral traditions, songs, knowledge of natural spaces, healing traditions, foods, holidays, beliefs, cultural practices, skills of making handicrafts, methods of agriculture and cattle breeding, traditional navigation skills, cooking skills and winery, etc. Elements of this heritage are integral parts to life in both rural and urban areas, as well as among Indigenous peoples.

Intangible cultural heritage is “traditional, contemporary and living at the same time.” It is inclusive, representative, and community-based.

Why is intangible cultural heritage important?

Intangible cultural heritage has a role to play in:

  • Promoting tolerance, peace and reconciliation
  • Fostering community and individual well-being
  • Promoting human rights and sustainable development

But intangible cultural heritage is chronically at risk of disappearing, in large part because of globalization.

To address this issue, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) created the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Culture Heritage in 2003. To date, 178 countries have signed on to the Convention and inscribed close to 500 ICH elements on the lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices. As of 2018, the lists include elements like male rites of passage of the Maasai community in Kenya, knowledge and skills of water bailiffs in Algeria and traditional hand puppetry in Egypt.

Inscribed in 2018 on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Traditional hand puppetry, in Egypt.
Photo: Nabil Bahgat, Egypt, 2010
Inscribed in 2018 on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Knowledge and skills of the water measurers of the foggaras or water bailiffs of Touat and Tidikelt, in Algeria.
Photo: Rachid, Bellil, 2016

But the safeguarding measures of the 2003 Convention are not limited to lists and inventories. To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to its community and transmitted from one generation to another.

It’s important to note that ICH is community-based. This means that intangible heritage is recognized as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it.

Efforts to promote and safeguard intangible cultural heritage are undertaken by tradition holders themselves. In Canada, local communities, non-governmental organizations and provincial governments also have a role to play in creating policies that ensure the safeguarding of living heritage.

Although Canada has not ratified the 2003 Convention, practitioners and policy makers at all levels may be guided or inspired by its principles and mechanisms.

Types of intangible cultural heritage

To help people understand intangible cultural heritage, the UNESCO Convention describes it in terms of five broad categories:

  • Oral traditions and expressions. This can mean proverbs, riddles, tales, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, chants, songs, and more.
  • Performing arts. This can include music, dance and theatre, pantomime, songs and other forms of artistic expression that are passed down from generation to generation.
  • Social practices, rituals and festive events. These are the activities that structure the lives of communities and are shared by members—for example, initiation rites, burial ceremonies, seasonal carnivals and harvest celebrations.
  • Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe. These refer to know-how and skills that communities have developed by interacting with their natural environments, and may be expressed through language, memories, spirituality or worldviews. Traditional methods of architecture, agriculture, cattle-breeding, and cuisine are among the related elements.
  • Traditional craftsmanship. This may sound “tangible,” but it really refers to the skills and knowledge involved in craftsmanship than the products themselves. Examples include pottery, wood work, jewelry and precious stones, embroidery, carpet weaving, musical instrument production, weaving and fabric production, etc.

It’s not meant to be an exhaustive or exclusive list. Different countries may use other systems to identify or classify intangible cultural heritage.

Safeguarding or preserving?

In the field of ICH, the term ‘safeguarding’ is used to characterize efforts to protect elements of ICH, without seeking to freeze them in some pure or authentic form.

The key for safeguarding is transmission – ensuring that intangible cultural heritage is passed from generation to generation in a way that allows space for the natural evolution in our ways of doing and knowing.

Intangible Cultural Heritage or World Heritage?

Many people confuse the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity with the World Heritage List – but these are two distinct things.

The World Heritage List recognizes places of natural and cultural heritage that are of Outstanding Universal Value, in the framework of the World Heritage Convention (1972).

Colonization and Intangible Cultural Heritage in Canada

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than a century of assimilationist policies have taken aim at the intangible cultural heritage and languages of Indigenous peoples. Despite the damage caused by these forces, Indigenous peoples have persistently worked to maintain, transmit, revitalize their living heritage in a contemporary world.

All Canadians should reflect on how they can support these efforts, while recognizing and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples to practice and revitalize their own cultural traditions. According to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

Therefore, as a source of community well-being and mutual understanding, intangible cultural heritage can play a role in reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

What happens when we pay attention to intangible cultural heritage?

  • The heritage of humanity is richer and more diverse.
  • Minorities and smaller communities are more healthy and resilient.
  • We support activities that may be economically viable for craftspeople and communities.
  • We improve our understanding of one another within and across communities.
  • We are connected with the elements of our community histories and natural environments that help us understand who we are.

So how can we safeguard intangible cultural heritage?

The first step in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is raising awareness: making sure people understand what it is and why it deserves protection. Other important safeguarding techniques include:

  • Community-based inventorying. A possible first step is inventorying to document ICH elements of communities and provide information on their status. Inventorying can provide the basis for future protection and revitalization by local community members.
  • Networking. Tying into the efforts of organizations that are already working on intangible cultural heritage can lead to faster success.
  • Research on ICH includes mapping of best practices, policy reviews, feasibility studies on inclusion of ICH programs in schools, government organizations, or community institutions, investigation of ICH capacities to guarantee sustainable development and to promote peace and rapprochement, etc.
  • For countries that have ratified the 2003 Convention, the inscription of ICH elements on the international Lists and Register is a method used by UNESCO to promote the importance of ICH and the visibility of the Convention. In the course of its annual meetings, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of ICH has been able to inscribe close to 500 elements.

Want to know more? Check out these resources:

The ICH Blog

Heritage Saskatchewan

Conseil québécois du patrimoine vivant (in French only)

Guide pour les municipalités CQPV-MCC (English version coming soon)

Répertoire du patrimoine culturel du Québec (in French only)

Living Heritage Entity (UNESCO)

  • Tag Heritage
  • Tag Indigenous cultures
  • Tag Reconciliation
  • Tag Sustainable development