Monday 29 July 2013

Sharing Cultures 2013

The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

Last week (with support from MERL and the University of Reading) I was lucky enough to represent the HCA at Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), held in the city of Aveiro in Portugal. 

So, what is ICH? Normally, when we think of cultural heritage we think of tangible, physical things such as buildings, monuments, sites and museum objects. The concept of intangible cultural heritage recognises that there are many non-physical things which are also a part of our heritage. This concept was formalised by UNESCO in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which set out five domains of ICH – oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship. Unfortunately, the UK government has not ratified the Convention, and there has been a general unwillingness to engage with the concept of ICH in the UK. However, the HCA strongly supports traditional craftsmanship as a fundamental part of the living, intangible heritage in the UK.

The conference featured two days of parallel sessions of presentations (which meant I could only attend half of them), with a day of workshop visits to see local expressions of intangible heritage in the Aveiro region (separate post tofollow). In addition to papers on each of the five domains of ICH, there were also sessions on education and ICH, musealisation of ICH, and safeguarding and managing ICH. It was very much an academic conference and while there was a lot of very interesting academicising on ICH, there wasn’t much about the practical implementation and implications for heritage management.  

I gave a paper on craftsmanship as heritage in the UK, using basketry as an example craft to explore ideas of applying values-based approaches usually used in the management and safeguarding of tangible heritage to intangible heritage, and looked out how such an approach can inform the work of the HCA. 

Various papers caught my attention for different reasons – in my HCA capacity, in my work at MERL, and for my own personal interest – although there weren’t as many papers on craftsmanship as I would have liked. In fact, there were only three – including mine! There were three stand out papers from an HCA perspective.

Firstly, Austin Parsons of Dalhousie University, Canada, gave a fascinating paper on traditional Nova Soctian sash-window making. It seems that the craft is facing many of the same issues that craftsmanship is facing in the UK – an ageing workforce, issues in skills transmission with few people learning the skills, and a lack of demand/market. He explained how these issues are being compounded by conventional approaches to conservation in tangible heritage – the principle that you should repair, not replace. Austin proposed the reverse – that it is better to replace damaged sash windows with new ones built using the same materials and techniques, thus preserving both the integrity of the building and the craft of sash-window making. 

Dorothy Ng Fung-Ping of the University of Hong Kong gave a paper on the conservation of Cantonese Opera (yueju), Hong Kong’s only listing on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, inscribed in 2009. Prior to inscription, there had been growing support for and recognition of the value of Cantonese Opera as part of Hong Kong’s heritage by the Hong Kong government, and this coincided with a drastic reform of the secondary education curriculum in 2005. As a result, Cantonese Opera has been integrated into the secondary curriculum – in Chinese and English language classes, in home economics, in ethics, in religion – and Dorothy outlined the practicalities of how the Hong Kong government had gone about this. It has obviously been hugely time- and resource-intensive, and only covers one expression of ICH, but shows what it’s possible to do when the government takes ICH seriously.

Finally, Nancy Stalker of the University of Texas gave a paper on ICH and cultural diplomacy in post-war Japan. This paper focused on the ‘false gap’ between officially-viewed heritage practices, such as kabuki, and popularly-perceived heritage practices, such as ikebana (flower arranging), which, despite being practised by millions of people, are not given official heritage status – the principle being that cultural practices must be endangered before they can be designated as heritage. This made me question how the situation compares with the UK. 

If you want to find out more about ICH, take a look at UNESCO’s website and the International Journal of Intangible Heritage, which is free to download.

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