A new cultural commission on ICH?

There has in recent months been a surge of interest in Scotland in what is usually called Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). This is basically another name for oral cultural heritage such as traditional music, dance, and oral narrative. As the name suggests, the phrase can also include other aspects of cultural heritage such as myths, stories, beliefs and any other non-material (intangible) cultural traditions.

The key piece of legislation which is now making a significant impact around the world is the 2003 International Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage which is a legally binding treaty which unfortunately the UK has never signed. 

At its core, the Convention has led to the creation of various lists of ICH around the world which are either in need of ‘safeguarding’ or threatened in some way, or simply are so important to humanity that they should be recognised and supported as living heritage. In other countries around the world, but particularly around the Pacific and throughout Asia, there has been quite enthusiastic take up of the convention and subsequently money has flowed from central government to the local regions and local authorities, in order to help maintain the traditional arts and pass them on to new generations. 

This financial commitment may have put off the UK government from signing the Convention, and certainly had Scotland become independent, there may well have been enough political momentum for Scotland to sign up rather quickly to the Convention: there is certainly an appetite for it amongst some sections of the arts and heritage policy community in Scotland.

However, what are the possibilities for pursuing a more integrated policy framework in Scotland and the UK more generally for the support for ICH?

It is rarely commented upon that the UK is a signatory to the European Cultural Convention of 1955, which was formed out of the EU’s precursor union–The Council of Europe. This Convention has actually formed the basis for the ongoing Bologna Process–a process over many years with the aim of standardising European Higher Education across the Bologna area (which incidentally extends much further than our common conceptions of Europe’s boundaries including Belarus and Kazakhstan for instance).

The European Cultural Convention (ECC) actually states in Article 1, that the signatory nations are legally bound to ‘… to safeguard and to encourage the development of its national contribution to the common cultural heritage of Europe’ (See full text here). This being the case, in effect the UK has already signed up to the safeguarding and encouragement of traditional arts, and this includes Scotland. However, there has not been any significant impact of this post-war convention in the UK.

But interestingly, when one considers what the 2003 UNESCO Convention actually means on the ground and for the nations and people involved in traditional music, dance and oral culture elsewhere, the UK looks quite strange. There are two obvious positions I think that one can adopt in relation to the UK and its ICH:

1. The UK is not currently meeting its obligations set out in the 1955 ECC, and certainly has not done very well with ICH, but has of course spent quite a bit of time and energy over the decades on tangible cultural heritage (houses, landmarks, estates, artefacts etc.). In this sense, there is an imbalance in the current policy framework in favour of tangible heritage over ICH. There’s no shortage of resources for historic buildings, archeological sites, material culture etc. partially because they are tangible, material things in themselves. 
  If you think about it however, this is a bit of a false binary; you can’t really have tours of castles, landmarks, battlefields, or of cultural artifacts in a museum, without also bringing in the intangible cultural heritage which tells you about how they were lived in, used, and what cultural significance they had. In this sense therefore, we need a rethink about how we address this false dichotomy between tangible and intangible cultural heritage. My suggestion here is that we look to a new concept of tacit heritage to unite these two concepts, and to get at the underlying socio-cultural value of our shared cultural heritage. I would define ‘tacit heritage’ as the underlying socio-cultural, political and policy structures and values that are shared and performed in and through tangible and intangible heritage.

2. In a different view of this whole policy area, it could be argued that the UK does rather well for ICH but not through the formal, state-led mechanisms that countries elsewhere use to fund and support the traditional arts: The UK through institutions such as the BBC, commercial television and radio, the national museums and the various Arts Councils, does in fact fund quite a bit of ICH by proxy. Very few comparable Western nations spend as much relatively upon their ICH as we do, but there is a really big problem: Unlike other nations that have signed up to the 2003 Convention on ICH with UNESCO, we leave all of the spending decisions, ‘safeguarding’ and ‘representational’ decisions to the media and arts professionals. Scholars of culture in the UK, unlike in other nations that have signed up to the 2003 Convention, have very little role to play in the UK in deciding what programmes get made, which exhibitions are put on, what radio documentaries about traditional arts are broadcast etc. So that in effect, we’ve delegated by proxy many of the really important decisions about our intangible cultural heritage to commissioning editors at the BBC, radio producers, television executives (often not even in the UK), arts council quangos, and museum professionals. Consider this for instance, we don’t even have a state funded archive of traditional music in Scotland. We’ve got the British Library for instance, but it doesn’t even approach the sort of usefulness that archives and digital resources in other nations. We have had to rely here on Tobar an Dualchais, which is the closest thing we’ve got to a national archive of traditional music in Scotland–but even this was precariously project funded, when it should have been funded directly out of state resources (like the £23.3 million the national orchestras get each year directly from the Scottish Government).

Regardless therefore of which view you take on the big question of how well the UK is doing in encouraging and developing its unique intangible cultural heritage, there is a problem either way: Either we’re not doing enough because the policy landscape is too heavily skewed in favour of material culture, or we’re spending quite a bit of money but we’ve left all of the really important decisions about how we value and represent our culture in the hands of people who are commercially driven by audience metrics, politics and profit, and somehow scholars who have studied our traditional culture for decades have allowed themselves to be written out of the picture?

Isn’t it about time that we take a long hard look at how well we’re doing with our own cultural heritage in the round and set up a new state mandated commission to assess all the issues in the round? If we can’t do this at the UK level, then surely we could do this now in Scotland

My plea: lets have some scholars of culture on that commission, not just arts, media and political professionals.

5 thoughts on “A new cultural commission on ICH?

  1. Much of what still survives as being truly traditional, particularly in terms of performers who have unique regional styles, are pretty much marginalised by the major festivals, production companies, television etc, in favour of a younger generation, who have, for the most part, acquired their so called 'tradional' arts via CDs, festival workshops and academic institutions.


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