Contribution to the Forum of ICH Researchers

On June 3, 2012, a forum of researchers working with intangible cultural heritage (ICH) will convene for a first meeting in Paris. ICH researchers were invited to participate or to submit their thoughts on issues relating to UNESCO’s ICH convention and its operational guidelines. Below you may find the contribution from the Cultural Property Research group in Göttingen. More information on the June 3rd event can be found here:

Dear Prof. Kono, Dear Colleagues,

As none of us are able to participate in the first session of the Forum of ICH Researchers in early June, we submit here in writing a number of observations and concerns generated from the context of our research on the constitution of cultural property here in Göttingen. The forum plans to evaluate, as far as we understand, the implementation thus far of the Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and its Operational Directives.

In the following we offer a few generalized concerns in the hope that they might be helpful in considering particulars. Our own empirical research has on the one hand looked at the international level (negotiations of international conventions) and on the other hand drawn insights from a number of specific case studies – not exclusively on ICH, but in the implementation, the different heritage conventions often come into contact with one another. We draw from work in Cambodia, Czech Republic, Germany, and Indonesia, and from extensive conversations with colleagues from France, Italy, and Portugal, as well as from an international conference we held here in Göttingen where we also had participants discussing cases from Barbados, China, Cuba, Ireland, Lithuania, Mali, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland and Uzbekistan.

In our work, we have noted the following issues:

1) State ratification of UNESCO conventions brings forth diverse and complex systems of regulation, often dominated by the needs of bureaucratic cultures and actors representing them. We ultimately witness a great deal of activity on the part of actors capable of interpreting both state and UNESCO requirements with regard to dossier construction and, in the case of a successful nomination, nomination implementation. These interpreters – some of whom are indeed ICH researchers, some are NGO representatives, lawyers, etc. – represent again diverse ideologies of safeguarding. The operational guidelines have brought forth complex processes with *enormous* paper or digital trails and supportive audiovisual materials. Occasionally it seems that all of this – Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has called this meta-cultural operations – exceeds in size that of the intangible heritage to be honored and safeguarded. It is time to think about

  • the investment in labor that heritage making and safeguarding measures require and
  • evaluating whether this investment is what the conventions were truly aiming for.

2) The ratification of the ICH convention brings into the control of the state a plethora of traditional cultural expressions and cultural knowledges that previously often were simply part of a local or regional expressive and aesthetic economy and politics. Depending on what kind of state one is looking at, this has a minor or major impact on the dynamics of the nominated cultural forms and their carriers. With minor intervention we might label the creation of inventories (which, however, in the bureaucratically necessary use of forms with categories and subcategories do have a disciplining effect); a major intervention would be the creation of controlling agencies that monitor who is permitted to carry out or participate in a particular intangible heritage and thus in effect lead to a policing of producers and beneficiaries. Mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion are, of course, common group practices, esp. also in the realm of cultural traditions, but we think it is important

  • to notice that through the ratification of the ICH convention, states have the opportunity to become actors in this arena where before they might not have taken notice.
  • to acknowledge that the opportunity to compete for ICH listings create economic incentives not just for communities but also for states
  • to witness that the arising questions of ownership of ICH also contribute to questions of cultural property (as discussed in WIPO’s IGC on cultural knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and genetics) – which very likely was not one of the intentions of the ICH convention.
  • to be aware that all heritage conventions have the potential to create friction within and between states, as they contain potentials for empowerment that may be considered fruitful from an international perspective but whose consequences for parties seeking empowerment cannot be foreseen.

3) The intervention and mediation in ICH nominations is complex indeed and requires additional measures of reflexivity in fields of research (generally ethnographically working fields of scholarship) where reflexive considerations with regard to the impact of researcher presence in the field are customary. The training of cultural researchers is not identical in every country, nor are cultural researchers in every scholarly tradition used to or even willing to submit to national guidelines. It would thus be important

  • to witness what kind of professionals are engaged in assisting communities with heritage nominations in given countries
  • how heritage researchers are trained – in many countries, “heritage chairs” have been created at universities which exist alongside what one might term cultural researchers in ethnographically based fields that adhere rather to a school of critical heritage studies; thus one has different professionals who have quite different opinions on heritage regimes, but whose “resistance” to heritage measures remains marginal.
  • to gain a better awareness of what kind of agency heritage researchers choose to or have to take. In some states, there are national and regional institutions that employ cultural researchers to carry out the work of shaping dossiers in accordance with operational guidelines, indeed, in times of academic downsizing some cultural researchers are dependent on these kinds of jobs while at the same time they have ethical quandaries about the nature of this work. In other countries it is clear that state decisions are to be implemented.

4) On a larger level it is worthwhile to ask the question: what – if anything – is different about international conventions addressing areas of cultural practice as compared to for instance environment, security, trade, traffic and so forth. All conventions, once ratified, result in administrative procedures with attendant bureaucratic measures; many generate new offices and officers in charge of implementation. Implementing new norms in complex social systems has this consequence. Cultural practices and the professionals engaged in research about them (see point 3 above) are, perhaps, not ideal customers for normative measures. Nonetheless, a birds’ eye perspective, taking in account the broader landscape of international norm setting, would be helpful before further steps are taken to improve on the operational guidelines of UNESCO heritage conventions.


Prof. Dr. Regina Bendix
Speaker of the DFG Research Group on Cultural Property

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