UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Valdimar Hafstein

Valdimar Tr. Hafstein is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of Iceland and a fellow in the International Center for Advanced Studies at New York University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004. His dissertation, The Making of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Tradition and Authenticity, Community and Humanity, investigates the construction of the concept of intangible heritage and of the convention dedicated to its safeguarding. His research on the international politics of heritage in UNESCO is complemented by a parallel project on the politics of intellectual property and traditional knowledge in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
“The Making of Intangible Cultural Heritage: Tradition and Authenticity, Community and Humanity”

At UNESCO’s General Conference in October 2003, member states of the organization supplemented the World Heritage Convention with a new instrument that extends the scope of international heritage policy from immovable objects—monuments, groups of buildings, and sites—to the realm of the “intangible.” The elusive notion of intangibility refers not to the spectral or ethereal (though it includes stories and rituals relating to ghosts and spirits), but suggests a focus on practices and expressions that do not leave extensive material traces, at least not of monumental proportions. Storytelling, craftsmanship, rituals, dramas, and festivals are prime examples of the sort of cultural representations targeted by the new international instrument of heritage policy. These used to be called folklore—a term largely abandoned within UNESCO. The new instrument is named the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It has been a long time coming, and one could say it has been in the works ever since the World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972; nevertheless, the text of the new convention was in fact drafted and approved in record time: the two years intervening between one General Conference and the next.

Along with the invention of intangible heritage as concept and category, my research examines the creation of the new convention. In June 2003, I observed and took part in the third session of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Meeting of Experts that was responsible for drafting the new convention. This meeting figures prominently in the story I tell. To understand the nuts and bolts of the intangible cultural heritage and its construction, I think it is important not only to know the official account of compromise and solidarity, but also to witness the diplomatic jostling, the making and breaking of alliances, the confrontation and the resistance that mark the way towards agreement and shape the final outcome. From a legal standpoint, it is true, the process that generated the convention is of limited interest. However, whereas abstraction is in the nature of the legal procedure, from a cultural and critical point of view it is indispensable to understand the convention’s genesis and its entanglements in international politics and administration. My analysis, therefore, embeds the convention and its pivotal concept firmly in the organizational contexts, political altercations, ideological conflicts, and diplomatic negotiations out of which they emerged.

In the 1990s, a reorientation occurred in UNESCO’s approach to folklore, away from a European-inspired archival paradigm to an East-Asian paradigm associated with Japanese and Korean programs for “living national treasures.” This reorientation reflected widespread disappointment with the 1989 Recommendation for the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore and growing dissatisfaction with the World Heritage Convention from 1972. Along with its predecessors, such as UNESCO’s Living Human Treasures program and the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, the 2003 convention is a response to their shortcomings, introducing novel concepts and categories and disposing of others, such as authenticity. By realigning the parameters of heritage discourse and refashioning universal categories, Japan and its allies within UNESCO challenge and assert hegemony in the cultural sphere and redraw the balance of power in international heritage forums.

Intangible cultural heritage is a tool of intervention; it is a normative rather than descriptive concept, which posits value, threat, and moral obligation, transforming people’s relationship to their own practices. In particular, the hazard of globalization is inextricable from the intangible heritage and justifies governmental intervention in an effort to safeguard threatened traditions. Such interventions, however, cannot help but restructure the practices designated and integrate vernacular culture into official administrative structures.
Indeed, intangible heritage permits a re-location of culture in communities and of communities in a multicultural matrix of organized diversity. As part of the more general communalization of government, intangible heritage is a tool for safeguarding community, a social and moral good perceived to be under threat. By empowering practicing communities to define and designate their intangible heritage and take part in protecting it, the concept and convention offer techniques for subnational and transnational communities to organize themselves as spaces of identification and allegiance. By the same token, however, intangible heritage interventions attempt to fix particular sets of relations as stable units that speak with one voice, and they cement the administrative bonds of the state with its constituent communities, organizing these as instances of unity-in-diversity.

One salient characteristic of the new convention is its particular triangulation between the local, national, and international communities, apparent in they way it distributes authority and in how it interpellates individuals as good neighbors, citizens, and cosmopolitans. The convention organizes multiple identities and loyalties so as to replace discord with concord, ultimately contributing to UNESCO’s main mission: to build peace in the minds of men. Whether it an appropriate means to this end, however, is an entirely different question.

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