Cultural heritage: making the intangible tangible - Museums Association

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Cultural heritage: making the intangible tangible

A new strategy around intangible cultural heritage will shine a brighter light on the rituals, festivals and traditions of communities across the country
Peter Hewitt
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A fiery battle between the Green Man and Goblins brings storytelling alive at the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh Beltane Fire Society

Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is defined by the 2003 Unesco Convention as: “The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.”

Under this definition, five “domains” of ICH were recognised by Unesco: oral traditions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festivals; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional crafts.

ICH was born from debates dating back to the 1970s about material and intangible culture, and the definition covers a range of community-based heritage that is often assumed to be beyond the remit of museums. But this is changing.

Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), the national development body for the Scottish museum sector, is working towards putting an ICH strategy together. This will grow organically in consultation with communities, ethnologists, specialists and heritage organisations across the country and will be finalised by next year.

In 2012, MGS was the first UK organisation to become an accredited expert ICH adviser to Unesco. Since then, we have co-commissioned research about the topic with Edinburgh Napier University as well as run events.

This year, I became MGS’s ICH officer, a role in which I hope to help identify and explore examples of interesting practice and to co-lead on training programmes to raise confidence in the subject across the Scottish museum sector and further afield.

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In partnership with tourism body VisitScotland and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, MGS has funded numerous projects to tie in with the Year of Stories for 2022. In the context of ICH, this has enabled MGS to fund applications from small community groups as well as museums and galleries, and so begin working with organisations and communities around ICH.

There are two examples of such projects. The first is a festival celebrating Roma culture and heritage on 26-27 August at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, put together by Ando Glaso, a charity that helps to promote the cultural heritage of Roma people in Scotland. The MGS grant will fund a 60-minute performance of new and traditional stories, songs and music centred on Roma culture.

The second example is a project run by South West Mull and Iona Development to record contemporary stories of locals to reflect the central role of fishing on the islands, past and present.

While the first round of funding supported community and arts organisations, a large proportion of the second round will support museum-based projects.

Museums can benefit from engaging more readily with ICH in a number of ways. For instance, although it is rooted in the past, ICH is brought to life today through human commonalities, such as celebrations, gatherings, the marking of the seasons, dance or music. Participation in these events can build social cohesion, a sense of identity, responsibility, and by so doing tackle isolation and loneliness.

It is clear, too, that ICH – think fire festivals, regional foods and crafts – can contribute to sustainable economies. Perhaps most radically, ICH gives communities the power of self-representation. ICH can only be “heritage” when it is recognised as such by a community – nobody else can decide that a given expression or practice is their heritage.

The potential for ICH communities to shape cultural representations should not be lost on museums.

Peter Hewitt is the ICH officer at Museums Galleries Scotland, and co-founded the Folklore Museums Network

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