Intangible Heritage: Preserving Ideas
As a person studying in Museum Studies, I often think in a very material sense. Thinking mostly of heritage being portrayed through physical spaces, such as protected heritage sites, and traditional objects such as the collections on display in museums, it is easy to forget the larger umbrella that covers what else heritage can be. The overarching definition of heritage, according to Google, is: “property that is or may be inherited,” or “valued objects and qualities such as cultural traditions, unspoiled countryside, and historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations.” Meaning, heritage in a broader sense can be understood as something, whether it be physical or not, that is inherited or passed down. It has less focus on what the piece of heritage actually might be physically and has a greater focus on the traditional and cultural impact the piece of heritage may have on society and the communities they originated from. With this understanding of what heritage can include, it provides us an opportunity to take a look at a different type of heritage – intangible heritage. Intangible cultural heritage, according to UNESCO, are “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants,” with examples including “oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” Under the lists of "Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Register of good safeguarding practices," one can explore the different traditions and practices that are being preserved and recorded for the future memory of these cultural valuable intangible heritage pieces. These examples range from commonly practiced and well-known traditions such as the traditional Neapolitan culinary practice of ‘Pizzaiuolo,' the four phases of preparing traditional Neapolitan pizza (as described by a MMST colleague who wrote about it recently!), to less well-known traditions such as the traditional Vallenato music of the Greater Magdalena region in Colombia.
Performance by traditional Vallenato musician, Source
While some of the traditions may continue to be passed on strongly, many traditions that are listed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage face serious danger of being forgotten and are noted to be in need of urgent safeguarding. For instance, one of these endangered traditions is the Ma’di bowl lyre music and dance from Uganda. These songs and dances are based on by the community’s ancestors and are traditionally performed in various important community situations. Many rituals are also associated with the creation and use of the lyre as well. These traditional songs and dances were used to strengthen family ties and communities, as well as to educate from generation to generation. However, these traditions are now endangered, with the younger generations seeing them as old-fashioned. If these traditions are not be widely practiced, it may result in the loss of knowledge associated with them – in other words, the historical and cultural significance that is tied to these practices.
Performance featuring the Ma'di bowl lyre, Source
Looking at and preserving intangible heritage is extremely important, especially as we attempt to preserve the histories and traditions of cultures that rely on oral traditions, rather than material ones. Especially as emerging museum professionals, we must understand that different cultures present different traditions that are practiced and understood in different ways. Therefore, as we attempt to represent these cultures and work with local communities to preserve their traditions, we must look at all types of heritage – not just your average material collection in an object-based museum, but, rather, the intangible heritage as well. If you are interested to see what intangible cultural heritage is being protected under UNESCO, you can visit their website and take a look at their list. Explore the different traditions from around the world that are being preserved and learn about international heritage from a different perspective!