What do askiya (the Uzbek art of wit), the making of lavash bread, washi (the Japanese art of hand-making paper), and the tchopa sacrificial dance all have in common?
They were all added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014.
How about the Isukuti dance of the Isukha and Idakho communities of Western Kenya, the male-child cleansing ceremony of the Lango of central northern Uganda, and the Mapoyo oral tradition and its symbolic reference points within their ancestral territory?
If you said they were all added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2014, you’d be right.
If you didn’t know that, you might now be asking, “What exactly is intangible cultural heritage?”
The idea of tangible cultural heritage is a pretty easy one to grasp—we can see things like buildings and handicrafts, and thus it is fairly easy to figure how to preserve them or to at least conceptualize their preservation. But things that can’t be touched, like a folk dance or a song…how do we preserve those?
According to UNESCO, intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is traditional, contemporary, and living all at the same time; inclusive; representative; and community-based.
Things that qualify as ICH are usually passed on through oral tradition, but are becoming increasingly threatened by globalization. On the one hand, globalization breaks down cultural barriers and decreases cultural diversity. On the other hand, globalization and the spread of technology undermine the importance of oral tradition (though they can also be used to help preserve it).
UNESCO was not the first to recognize the need to pay more attention to the preservation of ICH—that award went to Japan in 1950. “Living National Treasures” or Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties are certified by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. There are sixteen categories at present, all falling into the broad categories of performing arts or crafts.
How does this relate to historic preservation? Not only traditional practices like spiritual rituals, dances, or crafts are at risk for being forgotten, so are traditional forms of building.
One current AiP project directly addresses this question: how do we preserve buildings when the traditional forms of building have been forgotten? In conjunction with Volunteer South America, AiP jammers are volunteering in Ecuador to document, preserve, and restore examples of vernacular architecture. By working with communities, AiP hope to reignite an interest in and an understanding of the importance of the built cultural heritage. Particularly in small towns in Ecuador, restoring traditional buildings could greatly increase economic development opportunities through tourism.
Interested in getting your hands on some forgotten intangible cultural heritage like traditional Ecuadorian building techniques? AiP will be in Ecuador in August 2015, so mark your calendars!
You can read more about the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage convention on their website or in this brochure.