The UK Government recently announced its intention to ratify the 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. This has potential to be a gamechanger for museums and galleries, as well as the communities they serve.
The convention was introduced by Unesco in 2003 as a way “to incite countries to care about and look after the ICH present on their territories”.
In October 2023, when national heritage bodies across the world were considering the impact of 20 years of the convention, the UK was one of only 13 Unesco member states not to have ratified.
Therefore, for many working in the field of ICH, the announcement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in late December of the government’s intention to ratify came as something of a welcome surprise.
ICH is characterised by Unesco as “traditional, contemporary and living at the same time, inclusive, representative, and community-based”.
The five broad domains of the convention are: oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.
Through exploring these domains, it should be clear that most museums are already closely engaged with ICH, whether or not they use this terminology. Consider, for example, the role of museums as community performance spaces, in demonstrating and communicating traditional craft techniques, or the use of oral histories, dialect, or music in the interpretation and humanisation of museum collections.
In Scotland, national ICH provision has been largely driven by the ICH Scotland Partnership, consisting of Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS), Creative Scotland, Traditional Arts & Culture Scotland, and Historic Environment Scotland.
The partnership aims to reach across all ICH domains, focusing as much on the “contemporary and living” aspect as the historic environment and material cultural collections.
The partnership has always promoted ‘ICH in Scotland’, rather than ‘Scottish ICH’, to reflect the inclusivity and representativity of ICH, ensuring that every community’s heritage can be safeguarded.
This area of work is not new; in 2012, MGS became the first UK organisation to be accredited as a non-governmental organisation advisor to Unesco.
For Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022, MGS partnered with VisitScotland to deliver the Community Stories Fund, which allowed 180 museums and communities to tell the stories of specific communities and groups, including those of Scotland’s LGBTQI+ communities, refugees, disabled people, island dwellers and more.
We’ve seen how museums are already utilising ICH, such as Highland Folk Museum’s demonstrations of Waulking Songs, the Scottish Maritime Museum’s boat-building school, or Dumfries Museum’s recent exhibition of Folk Art.
Indeed, the International Council of Museums’ definition of a museum states that it “researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage”. Post-ratification, this work should be understood as operating within an international convention.
Museums are unique in their ability to be outward-looking public spaces as well as genuine community resources. Museums perhaps therefore have an unparalleled responsibility to position themselves as spaces to engage with, promote and ultimately safeguard the ICH of their various communities.
This does not necessarily mean extra work on top of the day-to-day; ICH gives excellent opportunity for engaging with ecological issues (vernacular land knowledge, Indigenous beliefs, folklore), repatriation and restitution (respectful engagement with human remains as ancestors), or multi-sensory interpretation (smell, music, dialect, taste, etc).
Comprehensive dedicated and passionate belief in this work is well evidenced, but significant resourcing will be required from government and policymakers for ICH to be safeguarded appropriately.
Museums play a key role in the delivery of safeguarding ICH, and ensuring that this remains community-driven, and community-defined. Working deliberately with ICH can in turn ensure that museums engage a wide range of communities and groups, that the meaning of museum collections is widely communicated, and that the unique relevance of museums to communities is maintained and developed.
The UK Government’s consultation on the initial implementation stage of the Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is live until the 29 February 2024.
Jacob O’Sullivan is the museum development manager at Museums Galleries Scotland