MUSEUM International N°221-222

Views and Visions of the Intangible



by Mounir Bouchenaki

By adopting the Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage, the General Conference of UNESCO , assembling 190 member states, signaled historic turning point in the comprehension of the concept of an heritage within contemporary societies, its definition and related actions for safeguarding and preservation. No more than twenty years were necessary to advance to a new stage in the analysis of heritage on an international scale. An indication, for some, of the extreme mobility of ideas, a restored cultural balance or simply the acceleration of time, this stage is, for the actors of the international community of heritage, the sign of the achievement of an idea born in 1946: that of the universal nature of cultures. 

Over the past thirty years, the concept of cultural heritage has been continually broadened. The Venice Charter (1964) referred to “monuments and sites” and dealt with architectural heritage. The question rapidly expanded to include groups of buildings, vernacular architecture, industrial and 20th century built heritage. Over and above the study of historic gardens, the concept of “cultural landscape” highlighted the interpenetration of culture and nature.

The anthropological approach to culture and the refocusing of social sciences on processes, to the detriment of objects, have proven to be significant factors in the redefinition of heritage as an entity made up of various, complex and interdependent expressions, revealed through social customs. Today, it is the diversity of expressions that creates the definition of heritage rather than the adhesion to a descriptive standard. This process, strictly dependent on the idea of the complexity of heritage, was not obvious as the habits of simplified visual representations of the diversity of cultures through their heritage expressions were firmly anchored in minds. African habitats and sculpture, European monuments, the lost pyramids of Latin America and the national parks of North America…,  are no longer simply perceived as images par excellence of the heritage of humanity, but have acquired a new  dimension, through the intermediary of the concept of intangible values.

It is the quest for the meaning of cultural expressions that has paved the way for the acknowledgment of a new approach to heritage. This quest, which has acquired greater importance in the last twenty years, has required us to identify the social customs and systems of beliefs, including myths, of which intangible heritage is the sign and expression.  The definition of intangible cultural heritage and its better appreciation as a source of identity, creativity and diversity have therefore greatly contributed to draw a comprehensive approach to heritage which will now apply to both tangible as well as intangible heritage.

For three decades, UNESCO’s normative standard-setting activities focused on the protection of tangible heritage . As a consequence, the safeguarding of intangible heritage remained for a long time rather neglected, although a first step in this direction was made in 1973, when Bolivia proposed that a Protocol be added to the Universal Copyright Convention in order to protect folklore. This proposal was not successful but it helped to raise awareness of the need to recognise and include intangible aspects in the domain of cultural heritage. It took until 1982 for UNESCO to set up a “Committee of Experts on the Safeguarding of Folklore” and created a special “Section for the Non-Physical Heritage”, resulting in the Recommendation on the Protection of Traditional Culture and Folklore, adopted in 1989. This Recommendation set an important precedent for recognizing "traditional culture and folklore". It also encouraged international collaboration, and considered measures to be taken for its identification, preservation, dissemination and protection.

After 1989, several regional assessments on the impact of this Recommendation have been made. They culminated in the Washington International Conference in June 1999 organised jointly by UNESCO and the Smithsonian Institution. Experts taking part in this conference concluded that a new or revised legal instrument would be required to address questions of terminology and the breadth of the subject matter more adequately. The Conference underlined the necessity to place an emphasis on tradition-bearers rather than scholars. It also highlighted the need to be more inclusive, encompassing not only artistic products such as tales, songs, etc., but also knowledge and values enabling their production, the creative processes that bring the products into existence and the modes of interaction by which these products are received and acknowledged.

In the nineties, two new UNESCO programmes witnessed the increasing importance of intangible cultural heritage: the Living Human Treasures system, launched in 1993, and the Proclamation of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, launched in 1998. In the framework of this second programme, nineteen forms of cultural spaces or expression were proclaimed as "Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage" by the Director-General of UNESCO in May 2001 and another set of twenty-eight “Masterpieces” gained international recognition in November 2003. This proclamation provides a useful indication of the type of intangible heritage that different Member States wish to safeguard . The experience gained through these programmes made it clear that a new normative instrument for the protection of intangible heritage would be needed. After several studies commissioned by UNESCO had been undertaken on the advisability and feasibility of adopting a new normative instrument for this purpose, the General Conference concluded that a new Convention would ensure the most appropriate protection. In 1999, the process of drafting this new instrument began, trying to find the most appropriate approach to the specific protection needs of the intangible heritage. The draft of this new Convention was submitted to the 32nd session of the General Conference and adopted by a large majority in October 2003.

This unquestioned success demonstrates the need to protect heritage by operational activities in parallel with the implementation of normative instruments, and this two-fold approach is increasingly recognized by Member States. It has revealed an extremely positive dimension of the work pursued at international level. As discussion on normative instruments for heritage requires all Member States of UNESCO to be present and offers them the chance to voice their views, the new concepts and notions that gain recognition through international normative action are, consequently, expressions of a truly universal approach. Compared to the geo-cultural composition of the expert assembly that drafted the Venice Charter, discussions on the definition of Intangible Heritage have benefited from an exceptional representation of cultures.

The success of the Convention is also explained by the fact that for all cultures, tangible and intangible heritage are closely interrelated. Cultural heritage operates in a synchronized relationship involving society (that is, systems of interactions connecting people), norms and values (that is, ideas and belief systems that define relative importance). Heritage objects are the tangible evidence of underlying norms and values. Thus, they establish a symbiotic relationship between tangible and intangible. The intangible heritage must be seen as a broader framework within which tangible heritage takes on its shape and significance. The Istanbul Declaration, adopted at the Round table of Ministers of Culture organised by Mr. Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of UNESCO in Istanbul in September 2002, stresses that "an all-encompassing approach to cultural heritage should prevail, which takes into account the dynamic link between the tangible and intangible heritage and their deep interdependence. Yet the underlying idea, forged fifty-two years ago by Claude Levi Strauss, “is not to demonstrate that major groups that composed Humanity have brought, as such, specific contributions to our common heritage”   Instead, it is by ensuring greater and equal representation of all cultures that we come closer to the idea of safeguarding “the very fact of diversity” through the reformulation our heritage approach.

The Shanghai Charter, adopted at the 7th Asia Pacific Regional Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Shanghai in October 2002, recommends to “establish interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial approaches that bring together movable and immovable, tangible and intangible, natural and cultural heritage” and to “develop documentation tools and standards in establishing holistic museum and heritage practices”. But, what is meant by these “holistic approaches for the tangible heritage and intangible heritage” and how can they be put into practice?

The tangible cultural heritage, be it a monument, an historic city or a landscape, is easy to catalogue, and its protection consists mainly in conservation and restoration measures. Intangible heritage is made up of processes and practices and therefore needs another safeguarding approach and methodology than the tangible heritage. It is fragile by its very nature and therefore much more vulnerable than other forms of heritage as it hinges on actors and social and environmental conditions which do not change too rapidly. Safeguarding intangible heritage involves collection, documentation and archiving as well as the protection and support of its bearers. While the tangible cultural heritage is designed to survive long after the death of the person who produced or commissioned it, the fate of the intangible heritage is much more closely related to its creators as it depends in most cases on oral transmission. Therefore, the legal and administrative measures traditionally taken to protect material items of cultural heritage are not in most cases not appropriate for safeguarding a heritage whose most significant components relate to particular systems of knowledge, values and the social and cultural context in which it is created. Taking into account the different needs for conservation of monuments, cities or landscapes on the one hand and for safeguarding and transmission of cultural practices and traditional knowledge on the other hand, it will therefore be necessary to develop a threefold approach which will (i) put tangible heritage into its wider context, (ii) translate intangible heritage into “materiality” and (iii) support practitioners and the transmission of knowledge and skills.

A holistic heritage approach would mean viewing tangible heritage in its wider context, particularly in the case of religious monuments and sites, and relating it more closely to the communities concerned in order to take into better account its spiritual, political, or social values. In order to safeguard intangible heritage, it needs also to be “translated” from its oral form into some manifestation of materiality, be it archives, inventories, museums, audio and film records. Although this might be regarded as “freezing” intangible heritage into documents, it should be clear that this is only one aspect of safeguarding and will require great thoughtfulness and care with regard to the most appropriate methods and materials chosen for this task. Thirdly, one fruitful model for supporting practitioners and the transmission of skills and knowledge, might be Japan’s policy for the protection of “Living National Treasures”, i.e. masters who possess specific traditional knowledge and skills. UNESCO started to work with a similar concept in 1993, the “Living Human Treasures” system designed to enable tradition holders to pass on their know-how to future generations. When artists, craftspeople and other “living libraries” gain official recognition and support, better care can be taken to ensure the transfer of their skills and techniques to others. 

These thoughts are gained from the recent work on the notion of intangible cultural heritage in order to implement a more holistic approach to heritage in UNESCO’s programmes. The very fact that the next General Assembly of ICOM, which has been closely associated with UNESCO heritage work for more than fifty years, will rest on the theme “Intangible Cultural Heritage” is in itself clear evidence of increasing international recognition of the profound inter-relationship between tangible and intangible heritage. Even if tangible and intangible heritage are very different, they are the two sides of the same coin: both carry meaning and the embedded memory of humanity. Both tangible and intangible heritage rely on each other when it comes to understanding the meaning and importance of each. Specific policies are now essential to allow for the identification and promotion of such forms of “mixed heritage” which are often among the most noble cultural spaces and expressions produced by humanity.

The content of this double issue follows the same historical and analytical stages, from understanding of the notion to questions of safeguarding and lastly, to policies and recommendations. MUSEUM International has received contributions from a number of highly distinguished international scholars and major actors in heritage policies and practices. I would like to thank them while wishing our readers an informative journey into intangible cultural heritage.


  1. See :
  2. By creating the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954), the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Export, Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970), the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) and the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001). 
  3.  It is for this reason that MUSEUM International has undertaken to publish within the double issue on Intangible Cultural Heritage, a CD-ROM presenting the 2001 and 2003 Proclamations of "Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". 
  4. Lévi Strauss, Claude, Race et Histoire [Race and History], coll. UNESCO, 1952.


Tangible and Intangible Heritage: from difference to convergence Dawson Munjeri
At the beginning of UNESCO’s normative actions, a discrepancy between protection of the tangible cultural heritage and that of the intangible, heavily weighted in favour of the former. Dawson Munjeri retraces the arduous route followed before the adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage at UNESCO’s 32nd session of the General Conference passing through the Burra Charter, the Nara Conference and other international conventions. His article explains how the fundamental change in our perception of cultural heritage occurred whereby we came to accept the notion that objects, collections, buildings, etc. become recognized as heritage when they express the value of society. He also questions previously accepted terms such as “authenticity”, which had been narrowly defined on the basis of a western notion, giving examples world wide and demonstrating how it represents a reductionist approach.  Through these means and others, this text is an analytical study of how the intangible heritage has been recognized as the larger framework within which tangible heritage could take its shape and significance. TOP

Researching and Safeguarding the Intangible Heritage George Condominas
Until recently, safeguarding heritage has been understood as safeguarding monuments. Likewise, written monuments, works of learning, great ancient texts have also been safeguarded and assistance by UNESCO was provided to reconstitute them. But there is no tangible supporting medium in safeguarding oral works as they are the heritage of communities some of which do not have writing. The article explores the various facets of what we mean by “oral culture”, describes the reason of its vulnerability and analyses the challenges its safeguarding implies as well as its effectiveness.

Constructing new Terminology for Intangible Cultural Heritage Wim van Zanten
In the process of constructing the UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage, it proved essential to draw up a list of definitions of the most important terms to be used in the future convention. Such a glossary was produced and published in August 2002. This contribution wishes to highlight the discussion which took place among the experts involved in constructing the glossary in 2002 by asking central questions to this on-going debate such as: Which authority has to define intangible cultural heritage, should it be the bearers of the culture, or rather professional experts or state agencies? Should the definition of intangible cultural heritage be a purely scientific definition, or should it be a scientific definition applied to a universal and political situation?

Digital Heritage in digital Museums Cary Karp
Internet provides a significant platform for cultural activity and has become a factor in the shaping of cultural interests. Museums have long recognized the potential that it provides for reaching new audiences and are currently considering the extent to which born-digital activity may require accommodation in the basic definition of museums (special focus on ICOM’s definition) and the museum profession. The inclusion of intangible material as a central component of the museum repertoire requires a change in the focus on tangible property as the touchstone of the museum profession. The articles explores the concerns that arose together with the availability of digital communication technologies but nonetheless does not hesitate to underline the expanding didactic role played by the professional community to forge the shape of Museum as it expands ever further into the all but boundless digital realm. TOP

Intangible Heritage and the Metacultural Production of Heritage Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 
This essay works towards a notion of global public sphere through an analysis of UNESCO’s efforts to define and protect world heritage. It will argue that world heritage is a vehicle for envisioning and constituting a global polity within the conceptual space of a global cultural commons. The author examines UNESCO’s project of the list of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in order to demonstrate how valorization, regulation, and instrumentalization alter the relationship of cultural assets to those who are identified with them, as well as to others. More specifically, such instrumentalizations produce an asymmetry between the diversity of those who produce cultural assets in the first place and the humanity to which those assets come to belong as world heritage.

Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: A Critical Appraisal Richard Kurin
Can UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, help local cultural traditions around the world survive and even flourish in the face of globalization? No one really knows, but with a new International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage it may be better equipped to do so.  At the biennial meeting of its General Conference in Paris on 17 October 2003 some 120 member nations voted for the multilateral treaty. No one voted against it; only a handful of nations abstained—Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States among them. For the convention to now become international law it needs to be ratified by 30 states parties. This article considers the nature of intangible cultural heritage, the approach, consequences, problems and possibilities suggested by the new Convention.

Migration, Transmission and Maintenance of the Intangible Heritage Rex Nettleford
The history of the Caribbean and of all the Americas over the past 500 years is the history of migrations of diverse arrivants into lands inhabited time out of mind by Native Americans. The result is a range of narratives by descendants from such diverse places of origin as Europe, West Africa, Asia (India and China) and the Levantine. The narratives turn in large measure for millions on the intangible heritages only parts of which are in the public domain. Much else reside in the myths, folk philosophies, oral traditions, religious rituals, traditional medicine, festival arts and such other products of the collective creative imagination as music, dance and literature. The text gives an insight on these oral expressions in a purely Caribbean setting. TOP

Intangible Heritage and Contemporary African Art Jean-Loup Amselle
This article attempts to question  the concept of intangible heritage through contemporary African art.  For those who consider the former a pure Western creation, it seeks to emphasize not only the connection between traditional and contemporary African art but also the re-appropriations of the pre-colonial repertoire by contemporary African artists.  This approach has the advantage of eliminating the polarization between traditional art which supposedly would result from the past and a contemporary art which would be specific to global modernity. TOP

The Transcription of Oral Heritage Jack Goody
According to Jack Goody, the process of safeguarding the intangible involves making a tangible record of it. However, oral heritage presents quite a different problem since first of all the evanescent has to be turned into the permanently visual by means of writing. The shift of a spoken recitation into a written text changes the nature of the work by altering its relation to the society that produced it. These challenges are explored through his publication of the Bagre Myth. TOP

Intangible Heritage and Intellectual Property: Challenges and Future Prospects Wend Wendland
What is the relevance of intellectual property to the subject matter of the UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage? What is the nature of the relationship between intellectual property “protection” and the “safeguarding” of intangible cultural heritage? This article briefly examines these questions further, with reference to work taking place at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) concerning the protection of traditional knowledge and expressions of traditional cultures/folklore. It will touch upon the following issues: (i) The meaning of “intellectual property protection”; (ii) The intellectual property-related needs and expectations of Indigenous and other cultural communities; (iii) The relationship between intellectual property “protection” and the “safeguarding” of cultural heritage; (iv) Cultural and legal policy challenges and (v) The results of WIPO’s work so far.

The Museum and the Intangible Cultural Heritage Kenji Yoshida 
The museum has long been considered as a place of representation, preservation and conservation of the tangible cultural property of the past.  From this point of view, there seems little room for museums to contribute to the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage. However, the museum is not only a depot for tangible cultural heritage, Kenji Yoshida shows how it is also a space to create and transmit  the “intangible cultural heritage”. Through specific examples in Japan, he provides an accurate analysis of the new trends in the museum field such as travelling exhibitions and safeguarding tangible heritage with the know-how handed down from past generations.

Heritage and Scientific Culture: the Intangible in Science Museums in France Michel Van Praët
The question of the relationship between museums and intangible heritage has been debated ever since natural heritage was introduced into the field of interest of museums and natural parks in the 19th century. Rather than address the various accepted meanings of the concept of natural heritage – it encompasses here, both the restricted definitions focused on the protection of living species, as well as definitions that extend to human societies and their practices in various environments – emphasis will be placed on the extent to which museums of natural history and more largely science museums have been affected and transformed by the concept of intangible heritage. TOP

The Beauty of the Living Philippe Dubé
What role will museums play in this new orientation emerging from this serious reinterpretation of the very concept of the cultural heritage of humanity? The museum cannot relinquish its duty of memory and must find original avenues that allow encompassing the cultural totality that heritage inspires today. The article browses through different museological practices and exhibitions, passing through the digital realm to provide information on this  present debate.

Intangible Cultural Heritage, Diversity and Coherence Lourdes Arizpe
The article highlights the important relationship between intangible cultural heritage and cultural diversity. It considers the concept of intangible cultural heritage in a rapidly changing context as a result of globalization and the rise of social and cultural movements that cut across borders. It delves into the challenges that this global context entails for the protection of cultural coherence such as falling into a cultural conservatism, cultural  trivialization or cultural overload etc. It searches the conditions, as awareness and policy models, that will enable groups to negotiate their new and ever shifting cultural positions.

An Historical Overview of the Preparation of the UNESCO International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Noriko Aikawa
This article reviews the different factors which generated international standard-setting for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, examines the conceptual evolution of the notion of the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and traces the various steps of negotiations leading to the memorable adoption of the Convention in 2003.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Legal Framework and Universally Recognized Principles Mohammed Bedjaoui
Mohammed Bedjaoui presided over the meeting of government experts in charge of developing the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. He gives his opinion on the value and fragility of intangible cultural heritage as well as the objectives and stakes of the Convention.

Language as a Vehicle of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Rieks Smeets
The laborious discussions on the question of the inclusion of language under the definition of Intangible Cultural Heritage that is to be safeguarded is here retraced. The 2003 UNESCO Convention does not include “language” as such but refers to oral traditions and expressions, and language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage. Through an analysis of national and international regulations in the field of language policies, the article explains how this decision came to be adopted and why. TOP

The Registry of Intangible Heritage: The Brazilian Experience Cécilia Londrès
The article examines how the concept of intangible cultural heritage has evolved in Brazil, ranging from public opinion to state level leading to the outcome, in the year 2000, of a legal instrument, decree No.3.551. This law, developed within the framework of IPHAN (Instituto do Patrimônio Histôrico et Artístico) and the Brazilian Ministry of Culture, focuses specifically on the safeguarding of intangible heritage. The article analyses the path which led to this complex task and what it encompasses with a special focus on the kusiwa art of the Wajapi Indians.

National Policies Concerning Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Example of Belgium’s French Community Rudy Demotte
In  2002, a decree was issued in Belgium, whose objective is to protect the cultural heritage of the French Community, but before all else to recognize it as such. Rudy Demotte lists the threats this heritage is faced with, the measures provided by this decree and the circumstances that led to its adoption. TOP

Taking Steps towards the Adoption of Adequate National Policies in Korea Yang Jongsung
Korea is a nation with an ancient heritage of diverse indigenous folk traditions. In 1962, the South Korean government established the Cultural Property Protection Law(CPPL) as a part of the conservation policy, under which folklore genres are authorized as important intangible cultural properties and folklore performers are designated as living national treasures. The Cultural Protection System is a policy and a set of laws, and as such its breadth of control is deeply reflected in the performers and performances of folklore throughout Korea. This study is concerned with the effect on folklore genres and folklore performers of national legislation for the protection of cultural properties and its related policies as the process had developed through 1994. TOP

Table of Contents

Editorial by Mounir Bouchenaki

Defining the Intangible Cultural Heritage

Practices and Problems of Safeguarding

Policies and International Debates

Current Debate: Authenticity and Diaspora H. E. Mr Olabiyi Babalola Joseph Yai (Benin) and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir (USA)

CD-ROM: List and excerpts of Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2001 & 2003

Date of periodical 01 May 2004
Languages 10000
Periodicity Quarterly
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