Introduction to Intangible Cultural Heritage

Royal Ballet of Cambodia

Cultural heritage is the representation of a collective past that ties people together in a communal bond; a bond that has a shared history and identity between past, present and future generations. For years, culture heritage was associated with the physical manifestation of culture, in various forms of structures, monuments, and moveable objects. The tangible aspect of heritage is a representation of a culture’s history, traditions and beliefs; or known as the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). In 2003, UNESCO established standards for Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, where extensive efforts are to be made in preservation of oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe and/or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts (UNESCO). According to the definition of ICH as demarcated by the convention ICH is manifested in any culture in five domains:

i. oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle to transmit ICH
ii. performing arts
iii. social practices, rituals and festive events
iv. knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
v. traditional craftsmanship

The 2003 convention also established two separate lists: Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Every year UNESCO enlists traditions and practices into both lists depending upon the nominations from the state parties (UNESCO). The Representative list is to guarantee awareness of the listed ICH and its significance in preserving of its community, whereas the Urgent Safeguarding List ensures preservation of traditions and practices of culture that if not protected might be lost for future generations to witness. Both lists require for state parties to nominate, publish and ensure efforts to safeguard.

The fundamental aspect of the ICH convention was the importance it places on the communities that are representatives of the ICH being nominated by the state parties. The people are the key holding the traditions and practices together in their cultural history, and the preservation of any practice depends greatly on the people’s ability and willingness to continue their practices (Blake, 45).

Garifuna traditional dance practice.

There are 429 elements inscribed on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, some of these elements are treasured by more than one state party and listed as shared heritage by all the nominating state parties. For example, Royal Ballet of Cambodia was one of many elements to be a part of the first list inscribed in 2008, nominated by Cambodia. Whereas, the Language, dance and music of Garifuna is shared between Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua; which was also inscribed in 2008 in the Representative List. The Urgent Safeguarding List was issued in 2009 for the first time, these practices include elements that are in danger due to lack of practice or practitioners. For example, Traditional design and practices for building Chinese wooden arch bridges are traditions that are passed on orally and personal skilled demonstration, usually through a system of masters and apprentices (UNESCO). Both the lists are a part of process and concept still very new to state parties, hence the number of inscribed elements is only a reflection of the newness of the list and not the lack of intangible cultural heritage.