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Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage: Key Factors in Implementing the 2003 Convention

Author(s): Richard Kurin

Journal: International Journal of Intangible Heritage
ISSN 1975-3586

Volume: 2;
Start page: 1;
Date: 2007;
Original page

IntroductionIn 2003, at the biennial General Conference of UNESCO its Member States voted overwhelmingly for the adoption of a new international treaty : the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Convention aims to ensure the survival and vitality of the world’s living local, national, and regional culturalheritage in the face of increasing globalisation and its perceived homogenising effects on culture (Matsuura 2004). Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) - a loose English translation of the Japanese mukei bunkazi, is broadly defined in terms of oral traditions, expressive culture, the social practices, ephemeral aesthetic manifestations, and forms of knowledge carried and transmitted within cultural communities. It includes everything from stories and tales to music and celebration, folk medicine, craftsmanship, the culinary arts and vernacular architecture. National governments adopting it would belegally bound by the Convention to designate and empower organisations to document intangible cultural heritage and create inventories thereof, and also to encourage the presentation, preservation, protection, and transmission of intangible cultural heritage by working closely and cooperatively with the relevant communities. Importantly, the Convention recognises as ICH onlythose forms of cultural expression consistent with human rights. At the international level, a new International Committee elected from the States Parties to the new Convention will develop two lists - one of representative traditions proposed by member states, and the other of endangered traditions in urgent need of safeguarding andeligible for financial support from a newly established international fund. The text of the treaty has been widely distributed and is available on the UNESCO website (1).The Convention came into effect in April 2006. By the end of May 2007 seventy-eight nations had ratified it - among them China, India, Japan, Nigeria, Egypt, France, Spain, Turkey, Mexico and Brazil, and I expect it will be ratified by more than 100 within the next year or so. Neither the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada nor Australia has yet ratified the Convention, though the U.S. is reconsidering its position. The Convention is likely tobecome the standard-setting instrument for the safeguarding of living cultural heritage in years to come as it becomes a routine part of state and institutional practice.UNESCO and the drafters of the Convention believe, correctly in my view, that intangible cultural heritage is truly endangered (Bedjaoui 2004). One can quote the precipitous decline in the number of languages actively spoken in the world today, as compared to the last century, as a symbol of the danger. The world has lostliterally thousands of linguistic communities, and with them much of the oral literature, the stories and tales and ways in which humans have seen and imagined the world - and how they might have done so in the future.Music, dance, performances and rituals, culinary and occupational traditions, craftsmanship and a large variety of knowledge systems have been lost or are in decline. To be sure, new ones do arise in their stead, but these tend to be less localized and less nuanced than those they replace. Increasingly, experts agree, there is a loss of diversity in cultural practices around the planet (see, forexample, de Cuéllar 1997, Serageldin 1998, Graves 2005).If the Intangible Heritage Convention has been devised to correct that, the big question is, of course, will the new treaty accomplish its goal? Will cultural traditions and the cultural communities which practice, nourish and transmit them actually be safeguarded? In this commentary, I consider the question of what is to besafeguarded, how and by whom, and to what end.I write not as a disinterested analyst, but as one who has been involved in the development of the Convention and its related programmes. In my capacity as the Director of the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, in 1999 I co-convened a joint conference with UNESCO, A Global Assessment of the1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore: Local Empowerment and International Cooperation (2). For that conference, embodied in UNESCO’s 1989 Recommendation on theSafeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore.I carried out a study of the responses by over 100 nations to a UNESCO survey about the efficacy of the Recommendation, and found it largely ignored and ineffective (Kurin 2001). The Conference as a whole called for a reconstituted definition of traditional culture orfolklore, the foregrounding of cooperative work with communities, and the likely need for an international Convention (Seitel 2001c).Subsequently, Smithsonian staff participated in a variety of experts’ meetings organized by UNESCO (Seitel 2001a, 2001b). Appointed by Director-General Koichiro Matsuura, I served as a founding member of the International Jury for UNESCO’s Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage ofHumanity. I then participated in discussions, attended intergovernmental drafting meetings, and wrote the brief for the U.S. Department of State on the 2003 Convention.Following U.S. re-entry to the organisation, I was appointed to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO by Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and re-appointed by his successor, Secretary Condoleezza Rice. Despite such official participation, opinions, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this article are solely mine, and not those of UNESCO, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, or the U.S. Government.
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