ICOMOS-UK Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage

ICOMOS-UK Conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage

ICOMOS-UK is the International Council on Monuments and Sites UK chapter, an organisation which exists to promote ‘appreciation and understanding of our cultural heritage across the UK and worldwide’. ICOMOS-UK held its second conference on the subject of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) on Saturday 23rd March 2019 - the first was five years ago, in 2014.

A key context for the conference is that the UK is one of only a handful of countries not to have ratified a commitment to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and therefore the live issues for the day were (1) the meanings, practices, safeguarding and dissemination of the UK’s Intangible Cultural Heritage and (2) whether the UK should sign up to the convention, with most presenters and delegates arguing that we should.

Another context for the conference was provided by the Brexit process. The ‘People’s Vote’ march occurred on the same day in central London and several allusions to the UK’s position in relation to the European Union - as a joiner, a remainer, a defector, etc. - were made by the speakers in discussing the UK’s position in relation to joining, or not joining, the signatories of the Convention.

The conference took place at Tara Theatre, in Garratt Lane, Earlsfield. Earlsfield developed following the opening of the overground railway station in 1884. The original Tara building (1891) was sited next to the embankment, and served as a mission hall for working people. Following a period of use as a church in the 1970s, the building was repurposed in the late 1970s as a performing arts theatre for the Asian community. An extensive rebuilding project, started in 2014, has resulted in a theatre opened by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in September 2016 which speaks of its priorities through architectural form. The unusual facade with a overlapping bas relief portico and triple sash window has been retained and added to with a bas relief tree to the side, imposing and ornate antique Indian doors to the auditorium, and a compacted Jurassic earth floor serves as a stage. This venue was chosen by the organisers of the conference as an exemplar of London’s ICH and how it is safeguarded in the UK. It worked very well.

Fortunately I was not the only member of Team Hertfordshire at the conference. Sarah Fitzpatrick, a student on the DHeritage Professional Doctorate in Heritage, and Dr Alana Jelinek, a Vice Chanellor’s Research Fellow in the School of Creative Arts, were among the delegates present for the opening keynote address by Dr Timothy Curtis, Chief of The Living Heritage Entity and Secretary of the 2003 Convention of Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO, Paris. Thank you to Sarah and Alana for kindly sharing their notes with me.

Curtis spoke about ‘Operationalising the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage: International perspectives and possible implications for the UK’. For Curtis, living heritage and intangible heritage are equivalents. The 2003 Convention was rapidly ratified and in effect from 2006 thereby establishing its viability, promoting respect and mutual appreciation, and raising awareness of ICH. 178 state parties have ratified the Convention, but the UK has not. UNESCO receives funding as a percentage of GDP to support the Convention, and its General Assembly meets every two years to develop regulations. UNESCO operates two lists which are not necessarily comparable: one concerned with outstanding universal value and the ICH list which is representative of diversity.

ICH refers to the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that groups and individuals recognise as part of their heritage. So, it can include oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, traditional craftsmanship and cosmologies. Therefore it is right that the community of practitioners should have the last say in what constitutes ICH. Heritage is transmitted, recreated, and adapted in response to the changing environment. There are limits to ICH based on human rights, respect and sustainable development, with which ICH must be compatible.

There is no time frame for ICH but it must be intergenerational. ICH is not about freezing traditions, but rather is about living and dynamic heritage. The core concepts informing this work are intergenerational transmission, community participation and living/dynamic heritage. In all of these, young people are key if living heritage is to continue to live! A focus on formal and informal eduction for transmission, along with core safeguarding and awareness-raising form the work of the Convention. It relies on free, prior-informed consent from participants and should not impose a definition of community but rather lets that emerge through self-identification so that ICH is community-led. Safeguarding, Curtis said, was a multifarious practice, involving creating legal and administrative contexts, inventorying and identifying ICH for safeguarding, implementing safeguarding measures and raising awareness. The Convention is emphatically not about simply documenting ICH. It asks, who are the practitioners? We have an obligation to define and manage ICH through capacity-building, peer-to-peer work calling on global expert facilitators attentive to the context and materials for training, monitoring and evaluating the impacts of the programme. UNESCO’s framework maps a set of indicators and assessment factors offering baselines and targets. With 8 thematic areas, there are 26 core indicators and 86 assessment factors.

Live issues for consideration in relation to the Convention include the extent to which the system for measuring impacts recognises the fate of ICH in emergencies such as wars and natural disasters. The Convention asks ‘How are communities using ICH to deal with emergencies and the resultant displacement and loss?’

The Convention does not use the word ‘authentic’, which is a core conceptual difference between tangible and intangible heritage. Given the concern for authenticity, we might ask whether processes such as gentrification can be understood as emergencies. Does such development of the built environment threaten ICH? Cities are now included in the UNESCO framework, and public spaces are recognised as ICH. Further questions for address include the extent to which the ICH of diaspora communities is constrained by state actors, given that countries have sovereignty and UNESCO has limited ability to implement or enforce the delivery of the Convention.

Clara Arokiasamy OBE, Chair, ICOMOS-UK ICHC

Curtis’s helpful Keynote was followed by ‘Passing on Our Cultural Traditions to Future Generations in the UK: Key Issues’ by Clara Arokiasamy OBE, Chair, ICOMOS-UK ICHC. Arokiasamy was really concerned to use the conference, and her talk, to probe the UK’s failure to ratify the Convention and to encourage all present to work towards ratification. She described the international admiration for the UK’s heritage even without ratification. There are many models of good practice found here. ICOMOS-UK ICH committee staged, in 2014, a seminal ICH conference and in 2016/17 ran a pilot project ‘Exploring ICH in Museum Contexts’. Art has been an important plank for facilitating work between communities and museums. Arokiasamy noted the role of NGOs, the Heritage Crafts Association, which keeps a Red List of Endangered Crafts, and an All Parliamentary Group, and others such as the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Scotland maintains a Wiki inventorying ICH projects, and a statement of intent was passed through Parliament in March 2018. Turning to national and independent funders, Arokiasamy mentioned lottery funding and the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) refining policy and practice, plus Arts Council England (ACE) and the foundations named for Esmée Fairbairn, the Aga Khan and Paul Hamlyn. Currently, many projects of relevance are not described as ICH. Arokiasamy was clear about the challenges of ICH in terms of nationalism. Flying the flag of St George, for example, can exacerbate tensions rather than bringing people together, and some beliefs and practices that contravene human rights in the UK include fox hunting, and we might add, more recently, female genital mutilation.

After these directional talks from Curtis and Arokiasamy came a series of case studies to add richness and detail to the delegates’ knowledge and understanding of ICH and its engagement in various heritage contexts.


Photograph by Selina Papa @papa_selina twitter

The first of these was from Marya Burgess, Series Producer of the BBC’s ‘The Listening Project’ from 2012 until last year, who talked about The Listening Project as a Partnership Project between BBC Radio and The British Library. In her talk called ‘Taking a Snapshot of the Present for the Future’, Burgess used the word ‘snapshot’ to emphasise that the episodes of her programme do not have a story arc, and nor are they oral histories, rather they are conversations which represent a relationship. The Listening Project was informed by a US example, the Library of Congress project Story Corps and David Isay’s ‘Ghetto Life 101’ recording the experiences of young people in Chicago (1993). The Listening Project episodes derive their power from the fact that there is no interviewer mediating the content or the recording process. If you remove the interviewer and hand over the recording equipment to two people who know one another, in a sound booth, the results are nearer to being unmediated. The radio programme listener becomes the third part of a very intimate conversation. Burgess doesn’t seek out specific conversations from the participants, but the programme team places the recording booth strategically to engage certain groups of people. This is important for achieving representation on the BBC and in the British Library of voices that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. Burgess played us a conversation between Dennis and Daniel at Durrell Zoo, Jersey, in which the two reflect on the occasional strangeness of their work, such as buying Marmite for the Gorillas and exchanging animals in car parks. One describes himself as ‘A small cog in the wheel but at least I am in the right machine’. Linguists value The Listening Project as a corpus of natural conversation. The University of Lancaster is using it in a corpus of the spoken word. Teachers of English use it and ask for transcriptions (not supplied). The collection has been used by artist Linda Ingham for the project ‘Conversations with my mother’ (2015).

Rosy Greenlees OBE showing the work of Michael Eden, from ceramics to 3D printing

Rosy Greenlees OBE, Chief Executive, Crafts Council next discussed ‘The Future is Making: Arts and Crafts [as] Tomorrow’s Intangible Cultural Heritage’. She was at pains to point out that craft evolves, it is not timeless. She gives the example of Michael Eden who has moved his work from ceramics to 3D printing. Paying attend to craft requires engaging with the material world. Greenless perceives a growing interest in making, over the last decades, in many different contexts.

Sheep counting systems, Mairi Lock, World Heritage Site Coordinator for the England Lake District World Heritage Site

Next, Mairi Lock, World Heritage Site Coordinator for the England Lake District World Heritage Site discussed ‘Landscape Shaped by Cultural Tradition: Intergenerational Transfer of Culture, Symbolism and Systems’. Much of her discussion centred around the meat industry in the Lake District, and specifically sheep farming. Lock showed us the local sheep counting system. She showed us images of fabric squares being sewn into the wool between the legs of sheep as prophylactic devices to prevent the sheep being worn our through too many pregnancies. Given the emphasis on human rights in the Convention, I was surprised to see the meat industry being promoted as ICH at the Lake District World Heritage Site when it seems to only be a matter of time before animal rights are similarly protected by the Convention. Curtis confirmed to me that animal rights are on the UNESCO Convention agenda already. When animal rights become fully embedded as a protected part of the Convention, the Lake District Heritage industry will need to reconsider its approach to the meat industry.

Further papers focussed on ‘Exploring ICH in Museum Contexts: A Pilot Project’ included a collaboration between Hastings Fishing Fleet and Hastings Museum & Art Gallery and two presentations concerning traditional song ‘Workshop of Singing Traditional Songs Relating to Nature and The Land’ by Emily Long Hurst, Independent Artist and Lucy Hockley, Cultural Engagement Manager Weald and Downland Museum and ‘The Quivering Scale: Tradition and Fusion Over Three Generations of Muslim Women’s Song’ by Anita Nayyar, Independent Artist.


Sound System, Dr Michael McMillan

A panel ‘Belief Systems’ saw Dr Michael McMillan, Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London discuss ‘Black Music: Rockers, Soulheads & Lovers: Rebels and Resistance', a study of the historical, cultural, social and economic importance of the Sound System in the UK, and specifically London. Dr Kathrin Pieren, Collections Manager and Curator (Social and Military History), Jewish Museum London, talked about ‘Passover and Other Jewish Festivals of Freedom’ and the way in which the Jewish Museum communicates and celebrates such festivals. Finally, Dr Adam Stout, Visiting Fellow, Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, presented on ‘Hope at the Solstice: Stonehenge, Ancient Harmony and the Dream of Freedom’, a rousing call for access rights (and party rights) at Stonehenge among other World Heritage Sites. Stout was keen to point out the invented traditions which Druids and other adopted at Stonehenge and called instead for a libertarian approach to public access to the site. I was sorry not to hear about the ‘Kent Miners Gala’ from Darran Cowd, Head of Heritage, Kent Mining Museum, who was unable to attend. 


Fears of development at Stonehenge… Dr Adam Stout

The parallel session that I could not attend, Folk Art and Folk Tales, offered presentations about the importance of storytelling and folk song, in giving others a sense of what people were/are feeling because sound crosses barriers and makes connections. In ‘Stepping Out of Time: Clog Dancing’ by Ollie Douglas, Curator, Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) posed the question of how a museum like MERL understands the intangible when the place and the organisation is all about the tangible. He and his team of colleagues need to animate the collection and introduce other voices. Delegates were given the MERL/University of Reading report Make Your Own Museum of the Intangible: A Toolkit. Finally, for ‘Travelling Together – The Apprentice Storyteller’, Amy Douglas, and Independent Story Teller, explored how stories work with the land and how heritage is a framework giving meaning and value to who we are.

The day ended with remarks on the ‘Future for Intangible Cultural Heritage In Arts and Heritage’ by  Hedley Swain, Area Director, South East, Arts Council England, in which he worried that in a complex society such as the urban West, a post-cultural milieu prevails, and wondered whether existing models are sufficient tools by which to arrive at explanations. He saw in the listing process the spectre of control and validation more broadly but concluded that the UK has more to gain from signing up to the Convention than it had to lose. I agree. The conference closed with concluding remarks by Susan Denyer, Secretary, ICOMOS UK.

This conference offered so much to delegates. For those unversed in the Issues surround ICH, such as students, it provided a really excellent introduction. For delegates who were well-informed about ICH, such as those working in the heritage industry, broadly defined, and those with an academic interest in ICH, the conference supplied a rich range of case studies and applications. The tenor of the day was respectful and collegial but not without debate and conviction. The venue was exemplary, the lunch by Chit Chaat Chai was delicious, and the materials provided for delegates in the conference pack were relevant and valuable. Thank you ICOMOS-UK for continuing the conversation. The team of staff and students on the DHeritage Professional Doctorate in Heritage look forward to continuing our involvement in the critically important process of recognising, and safeguarding the UK’s ICH.

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