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Intangible cultural heritage, chances and opportunities for policy

 Report of the International Conference Intangible Cultural Heritage in March 2012 in Deurne (Nerderlands)

Secretary of State Halbe Zijlstra opens the congress and the Year of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2012

‘The congress in Deurne marks the kick-off for the Dutch intangible cultural heritage policy’, said Secretary of State Halbe Zijlstra during the opening of the congress. By ratifying the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage the cabinet wants to give a strong impetus to the policy. Above all the objective of the congress was to learn from other countries: how did they handle this, which initiatives can we adopt? There were speakers from the United States, Estonia, Scotland, England and a whole delegation from Flanders, which ratified the UNESCO Convention earlier. A special guest was Cécile Duvelle, chief of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Section of UNESCO in Paris and also secretary of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention worldwide. The congress, that lasted several days, was attended by over 150 participants, government representatives and policy makers at every level. The congress had been organised by the Kenniscentrum Immaterieel Erfgoed Nederland (The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage) in co-operation with the Fonds voor Cultuurparticipatie (Fund for Culture Participation).

The opening evening was meant for government representatives. There were not only speeches by Cécile Duvelle and Secretary of State for culture Halbe Zijlstra. Also both directors of the organising institutions made a short introduction: Ineke Strouken for the Dutch Centre for ICH and Jan Jaap Knol for the Fonds voor Cultuurparticipatie. The guests were welcomed by Brigitte van Haaften, Deputy of the Province of Noord-Brabant. The congress was chaired by Nicolien van Vroonhoven, nowadays councillor in The Hague, but earlier always a staunch supporter of popular culture as a Member of Parliament.

ICH belongs to everyone

The communities themselves must take up the safeguarding of their own heritage. It corresponded to what Cécile Duvelle had said, that communities themselves are responsible and that the ICH Convention is there for the people themselves in the first place. Therefore authorities must always ensure in their policies that ‘communities are by all means the key players in all possible activities and safeguarding strategies, as they are practising, re-creating, preserving and passing on ICH’. Duvelle stressed also that the list will never be an objective in itself, but always must serve the objective of the convention, aimed at the safeguarding or protection of the ICH. Furthermore Duvelle mentioned promotion and awareness as important parts of the convention. Apart from protecting and safeguarding it is important to raise respect for each other’s ICH and strengthen the consciousness of the interest of ICH.

The congress was particularly meant for policymakers, experts and specialists. But from the examples given by most speakers it became clear that ICH relates to things that concern everyone and to which a whole population feels committed. Zijlstra himself,  as a born Frisian, mentioned the Elfsteden (eleven-cities skating tour) fever, that had gripped the whole of the Netherlands completely during the icy weeks prior to the congress, a tour that only just could not proceed because of the thaw that started just a bit too early. He also mentioned the example of carnival and called upon the congressists to stay in Deurne a few days longer. ‘Because from next Saturday here in Deurne the carnival festival will break free: Prince Twan the Second will rule in his ‘Peelstrekel Kingdom’. A huge festival, by the people, of the people and for the people. Thus being a good example of ICH, the subject of this congress.

Lessons worldwide

According to Cécile Duvelle some lessons can be learnt worldwide already, six years after the convention came into force in 2006. It struck her for instance that in many countries the emphasis lies on promotion aspects and that people nominate for the representative list in particular (and much less for the list of the endangered heritage).

Also worldwide much attention is given to consciousness. Duvelle finds this understandable but a bit regrettable as well. States use those lists above all to show their rich ICH on the international forum.  Key objective of the convention is, however, safeguarding the ICH for the future. That is why UNESCO itself ever since 2010 has given more attention to the development of expertise in safeguarding the own heritage. Inventories as such are not an objective, but only a means for outlining the bottlenecks in passing on ICH. As far as she is concerned that should be highlighted in the ICH policy of the various countries.

The Wednesday night was concluded with a festive dinner in the chapel of the former mission home Willibrordhaeghe. This dinner was interlaced with carillon music. Carillonneur Franks Steijns told the congress that carillon music will be nominated by Flanders for the international representative list of UNESCO. He called the instrument typical for the Netherlands. In no other part of the world there is such a high concentration of bell towers with a matching carillon. It concerns a living tradition. Still there are threats. Steijns: ‘Carillons compose the sound of our cities. They define for a great deal that Amsterdam sounds as Amsterdam and Antwerp like Antwerp. Without their sound you would hear only buses, scooters and trams in the inner city, or a group of musicians in the shopping street. Isn’t that cultural decline?’ Steijns defined technical progression as one of the threats: can’t a computer replace the role of the carillonneur? Fortunately there is a growing awareness that a carillon without a carillonneur also means a carillon without a soul. If only for that reason the traditional way of carillon playing may not be abandoned.

the obligation to inventory the own ICH

- There are limits to what you can achieve by safeguarding: heritage dies out if there are not enough people willing to keep it alive.

- His third principle was to permit heritage to evolve, to accept that it is inevitable, more than desirable, that it should. We must accept that our heritage changes, just like we are changing.

-Lessons from practice

The other lectures on Thursday were mainly based on practice. Kristiina Porila, heritage specialist at the Estonian Folk Culture Centre, spoke, among other things, about the trainings her centre organises for heritage communities, to train them in projects on safeguarding. Liesbet Depauw, of Volkskunde Vlaanderen (Folk Culture Flanders), spoke about a specific project on giant puppets, as an example of the best way to activate communities. Barry Bergey,  of Folk and Traditional Arts at tthe National Endowment for the Arts, from the USA, talked about specific projects, and how his institution supports safeguarding projects through project subsidies. Jorijn Neyrinck from Tapis Plein told a similar story, but aimed at young people. A remarkable point in her story was that the label ‘heritage’ appears to scare off youngsters. If you want to pass on something, beware of calling it heritage!

During the excursion day on Friday the focus was on the subject of graffiti. ICH is often associated with regional traditions and much less with the modern urban culture of today, often within a multi-cultural, globalising context with successive, quickly changing trends. By way of the graffiti excursion to Eindhoven ˗ a city which likes to present itself as the graffiti capital of the Netherlands ˗ a specific example served to explore to what extent urban youngster culture might be eligible for a place on the ICH list. Is graffiti, next to an interesting type of youngster culture also a type of ICH? To what extent could municipal policy respond to it?


Intangible cultural heritage communities

Report of the International Conference Intangible Cultural Heritage in March 2012 in Deurne (Netherlands)

No national culture policy

The United States is probably one of the few countries without a culture policy on a national scale, possibly only comparable to Belgium, where the culture policy is also decentralised. The separate states perform the task that is done by Flanders and Wallonia in Belgium. Still three institutions in the US are active with respect to folk culture and ICH: the Smithsonian Center for Folklife, a private institution which is a part of the biggest museum complex in the world, the National Endowment for the Arts, which, among other things, subsidises folk and traditional arts and the American Folklife Center, which is part of the Library of congress and as a documentation institution is comparable to the Meertens Instituut in the Netherlands.

When it comes to ICH policy the Smithsonian Center for Folklife is the appropriate institution. James Counts Early told the visitors to the congress how he was involved already in the early stages of international reflections on ICH that would eventually lead to the UNESCO Convention. In the practical policy of his own Center for Folklife the communities themselves are the core element. The Smithsonian opts for a ‘horizontal democratic approach’. The Smithsonian also develops educational projects, aimed at raising the awareness of young people, creates travelling exhibitions and publishes a magazine (Smithsonian Folkways Magazine). Ever since 1967 a large national activity has been the yearly organisation of the American Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, just in front of the White House, where communities of different ethnic origin can present themselves with their folk art, food culture, clothing, craft and traditions. Early himself mentions as the great merit of the festival the fact that the festival brings together the different ethnic population groups in a respectful way. 

Furthermore the Smithsonian publishes guides, like the Masters of the building arts activity, especially focused on the transmission of craftsmanship and the oral history guide, which rather aims at research findings. The Smithsonian has also always been active in recording traditional music and producing cd’s and records. This could be ranked under the documentation task of the Smithsonian.

Training programmes

Compared to the United States Estonia is a small country. In terms of territory it is only slightly bigger than the Netherlands, but it only has 1.3 million inhabitants, a considerable part of whom is of ethnic Russian origin. Since 2006 Estonia has been a state party to the ICH Convention. Being a state which had to fight for its liberty under the Russian supremacy Estonia has, according to Kristiina Porila, a low sense of self-esteem and therefore: ‘The need for national identity will be somewhat stronger than here in Western Europe.’ Some examples of ICH from Estonia are already on the international UNESCO list, like the Baltic song- and dance celebrations and the big festivals which are very popular in Estonia. 

About the Estonian inventory she said that her centre encourages local communities to compile entries for the online inventory of ICH. ‘We offer help and we encourage them.’ First priority for the centre is raising the awareness. The trainings the centre organises are mainly meant to encourage, to inform and to help with the safeguarding. To that respect the centre for instance translated the international toolkit of UNESCO into Estonian, with, as a supplement, the brochure ICH in Estonia, with local examples and background information. The first courses that her centre organised mainly focused on drawing up the inventory. Meanwhile courses with a more general character have been developed (in which for instance the basic concepts are clarified), focusing more on safeguarding. The course is given to smaller groups, so that the course members themselves can make an important contribution as well. As an example she mentioned a woman who wanted to compile an entry for the tradition of making birch sap. In order to outline the custom she questioned families who were still practicing the custom. Then she contacted schools, thus she succeeded in getting a new generation interested in the tradition. The objective is broad, but the approach is small-scale in Estonia. The projects are meant to support the local communities and are meant to keep the ICH viable, or sometimes even revitalise vanished customs. Another objective is the increase of participation, particularly by young people.

The projects, presented by Jorijn Neyrinck of Tapis Plein of Flanders, also focused on young people in particular. One of the examples was a travelling exhibition in the form of a gigantic game of goose, in a present-day design, with a strong visual and imaginative aspect, in set-up closely following the actual every-day life of young Flemish people (thus focusing on celebration customs, fashion and the internet). The exhibition was accompanied by an educative booklet and an additional workshop. To work on an intergenerational level is another philosophy implemented by Tapis Plein. It means that people from different generations are united around a certain topic. Layerdness on different levels, mixed target groups and different domains that cover society (in which for instance handicraft is combined with design) are among the most important principles in the work of Tapis Plein.

Around the dress coat of the giant puppet

Whereas Jorijn Neyrinck mainly gave an overview across the many different kinds of projects organised by Tapis Plein, Liesbet Depauw chose for an in-depth approach of only one project, organised by Volkskunde Vlaanderen with respect to safeguarding the giant puppet culture in Flanders. There was a simple inducement. In the Flemish situation expert organisations like Tapis Plein and Volkskunde Vlaanderen have an active role in accompanying nominations for the Flemish inventory and in the thought process of safeguarding measures. What was the case? Volkskunde Vlaanderen was approached by some giant puppet organisations with the request for guidance with a dossier for the inventory of Flanders. At the same time some other giant puppet organisations asked for help with the set-up of an umbrella organisation for the giant puppets. Volkskunde Vlaanderen decided to turn it into a project, the first step of which was to better outline the phenomenon of giant puppets in Flanders. How many organisations exist in Flanders with one or more giant puppets, travelling around in town or village? Who are the tradition bearers behind this wide-spread phenomenon in Belgium? How can they be involved in the inventory? What significance do the giant puppets have for the heritage bearers? Which are the possibilities for safeguarding for the future?

To actively involve the giant puppet organisations in the identification and documentation processes Volkskunde Vlaanderen chose for a dynamic way of registration and documentation: through crowdsourcing and through an online documentation platform. To put it simply this means that the giant puppet organisations themselves have outlined their own tradition through filling out forms, including stories, photographs and memories. It resulted in an active participation of the heritage communities themselves. The website also offered possibilities for more in-depth information, for instance about the history of the giant puppet tradition concerned. One of the advantages of such an online way of registration is that through Facebook also the link to new social media can be made. The website eventually was presented as part of the existing website of Volkskunde Vlaanderen, for financial reasons. In order to reach as many giant puppets as possible the choice was made for an approach through various channels.  By means of journal research one tried to find out the number of still existing giant puppets as accurately as possible.  Also on a local level the culture policy co-ordinators of the local authorities were approached, because they have a good insight into what goes on in their own community. Soon there were developments and Volkskunde Vlaanderen was onto some five hundred giant puppet guardians in Flanders, all of whom were approached in writing.  The giant puppet register served as a starting point for further action. Possible actions are study days, round tables, a giant puppet calendar, exhibitions and such.

The set-up of an umbrella organisation enabled the giant puppet organisation to collectively handle the problems. 

The giant puppet register appears to be a splendid instrument, even though Liesbet Depauw concluded that there may be some pitfalls and question marks. The list is dynamic, that is: in principle. One of the bottlenecks is that not every giant puppet guardian is familiar with the new social media. Depauw even called it a digital divide (the McCleery’s from Scotland had also pointed out in their lecture that there is a gap between old and young people, the elderly being thus less represented on a digital site). Another problem was that not all categories of information were completely filled out, so that the information that was given was not always reliable. For the informants the experience was the key issue. Furthermore Liesbet Depauw concluded that telephone calls showed that the filling out may be too difficult for many people.

Now the question is how to make the project sustainable. To keep their value the giant puppet organisations will have to be approached from time to time, in order to stay as up-to-date as possible. Depauw did not say so, but could this become a role for the new umbrella organisation? Volkskunde Vlaanderen will not be able to guide this project forever. New projects, from other fields, will arise after all. Ultimately this should be an important objective of expertise promotion projects like this giant puppet project: to reach competences to the communities themselves, enabling them to do the work themselves in time.

Volkskunde Vlaanderen is an example of an operating base on a national level that can support heritage communities. Flanders has also the so-called heritage cells, on a local and regional level, which actively support the heritage communities. In the Netherlands they are to a certain extent comparable to the provincial houses of heritage. In Zeeland for instance, as Dominique Blaha and Jeanine Dekker told, the Province of Zeeland has requested the Stichting Cultureel Erfgoed Zeeland to combine the knowledge in the field of folk culture. The SCEZ is now busy developing a digital knowledge centre of popular culture for Zeeland. Its objective is to collect, safeguard and disclose information on popular culture in Zeeland. By establishing a digital deposit of traditions, rituals and other forms of popular culture the knowledge of it will be saved for the future. Furthermore the SCEZ considers it an important task to facilitate and stimulate the heritage communities themselves. In this regard the SCEZ organises a special day of the ICH in Zeeland on April 21, for which every organisation on this topic in Zeeland will be invited. On this day the UNESCO Convention will be covered, but also the bottlenecks which organisations meet in keeping ‘their’ tradition alive. And there is the possibility for communities and individuals to present their activities. 

The role that specific organisations, such as the tourist organisation ANWB, can play is of quite another sort. Janique Huybregts said that naturally her organisation has no special objective towards ICH, but that the ANWB does find ICH very important, because it strongly raises the attraction value of heritage. As an example she mentioned a project on estates, with which you cannot do much if you are not able to visualise the stories, the customs and the traditions behind it as well. That is what tourists are looking for. Huybregts: ‘ICH and tourism / recreation have a strong relationship. In fact, they can’t do without each other.’


Device for keeping intangible cultural heritage alive

Report of the International Conference Intangible Cultural Heritage in March 2012 in Deurne (Netherlands)

Inventory intangible cultural heritage

‘To ensure identification with a view to safeguarding, each State Party shall draw up, in
a manner geared to its own situation, one or more inventories of the intangible cultural
heritage present in its territory. These inventories shall be regularly updated.’

UNESCO Convention article 12

Drawing up one or more inventories is one of the central obligations of the UNESCO Convention. It is only natural that one of the topic blocks of the international congress in Deurne was dedicated entirely to this issue, with four lectures from different perspectives. 
Speakers were, among others, the former chief of the UNESCO office in Paris, Rieks Smeets and Alison and Alistair McCleery, who set up an interactive website for ICH in Scotland. Also the Dutch government attaches great importance to an inventory aimed at the public, preferably in the form of a user-friendly website, which can also add to the purpose of making ICH visible for a wide public. Dries Van Den Broucke clarified the situation in Flanders. Adriaan Buiks, of the Province of Overijssel, spoke about his province´s initiative to outline the ICH for Overijssel especially.

No objective, just a device

The representative list of the ICH is internationally one of the best known components of the UNESCO Convention. UNESCO generated a lot of publicity with it. Much attention is given to it in the media, whenever a new element is added to this international list. This happens once a year during the autumn meeting of the international UNESCO Committee. It often concerns types of ICH by which countries like to present themselves on the international forum. Well-known examples of recent years are the French food culture and the flamenco in Spain. Both countries can also get a lot of appreciation with these when it comes to tourism.

Within this topic block it was Dries Van Den Broucke in particular who, entirely following the UNESCO policy itself, underlined that the objective of drawing up an inventory is not to make a list of important ICH, however interesting. According to him the lists are not a goal but merely a device. To illustrate this he quoted the central objectives of the UNESCO Convention: the safeguarding or cherishing of ICH, stimulation of respect for the ICH and the care for a greater awareness of the interest of ICH. That is the essence; drawing up an inventory only serves the higher aim of keeping it alive. This must be kept in mind with the set-up, the handling and elaboration of the inventory. As we shall see below, an interpretation of this was incorporated in the set-up of the Flemish inventory.

Rieks Smeets added a fourth element, namely that inventories must always be drawn up in co-operation with the communities. After all, they are responsible for keeping their own heritage viable. Again, the rule applies that the communities themselves, rather than the experts or authorities who are safeguarding, are designated to do this. Moreover it cannot be that it is stipulated from above, e.g. by national governments, who may or may not call themselves a community. This is another thing that the communities should determine for themselves. At worst this can happen by raising hands: who feels involved with the community concerned?

Inventorying worldwide 

Worldwide a lot of differences exist on the question of what should be included in the inventory. What are communities, for instance? Do they include new ethnic groups, which have come from other countries? In their lecture on Scotland the McCleery’s underlined that they have chosen for an inventory of ICH in Scotland, that is to say including the heritage of groups that came to Scotland recently. According to them this follows the vision of the Scottish government ‘to serve all the people of Scotland, regardless of a person’s race, religion, culture, ethnicity or other background’. Or, as the McCleery’s put it themselves: ‘With our interactive website we collect information on ICH in Scotland, that is to say that we do not discriminate against origin or roots.’

Some countries inventory only old things, with a long tradition. Others also give room to modern expressions; Smeets referred to graffiti, the central issue of the excursion on Friday. When confronted with new things Smeets asks: how does the transmission from generation to generation work? He can imagine that, with a phenomenon like graffiti, these generations will change more rapidly, from youngsters who are a bit older and have been practising graffiti for some time to somewhat younger people who still have to be initiated into the scene and the expertise needed for graffiti. It is by all means clear that one cannot learn graffiti by following a short course on the internet. Many more aspects are involved before one has a good grasp on the craft of graffiti.

Narrow or wide inventory

Besides the ‘what’ questions the ‘how’ questions matter. Like how extensive will your inventory be? Smeets mentioned the examples of Brazil and Luxemburg. The Brazilian list of ICH contains many thousands of elements. The Luxemburg list is very limited, and not only because of the size of the country. In Japan there is a short list as well, containing, not very advisably as a matter of fact, a lot of hierarchy. Smeets didn’t say so, but perhaps Japan is still a bit captured by the old masterpiece approach, which tends to present unique and outstanding types of heritage. Still, a long time ago UNESCO replaced this old masterpiece approach by a representative list of ICH that certainly theoretically gives more room to the diversity of ICH throughout the whole spectrum.


As mentioned, Scotland chose for an interactive approach for drawing up the inventory, of which an interactive website and the use of new social media form an important part. The objective of the website was that it should add to the awareness of the interest of ICH in Scotland and that there would be room for input from the communities themselves. Furthermore importance should be attached to the aspect of safeguarding, being the most important objective of the convention, by involving the communities directly in the set-up of the safeguarding plan, for which they themselves bear the responsibility after all. A third condition was that the inventory would be translated into an interactive inventory which could be consulted online and to which the communities themselves could contribute. This online inventory should outline all the ICH within Scotland in all its abundance and cultural diversity, in a publicly accessible way. In the set-up of the inventory Napier University worked closely together with the museums of Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS). MGS acted as promoter and financier of the project.

Broadly defined

In order to put the interactive aspect of exchange in the centre of things, one started off with an interpretation of the website, comparable to Wikipedia, which similarly gives everyone the opportunity to contribute on whatever subject. ICH was broadly defined, just like in the UNESCO Convention itself. Moreover Scotland interpreted this heritage as diversely as possible. ´Integration is the key´: meaning that all ethnic groups should be able to recognise themselves in the website. On keeping the traditions alive the McCleery’s said that of course there is discussion about the legitimate question whether ICH can be safeguarded at all. In Scotland they took it as a way to reach out to the communities: ‘The process of safeguarding does not oblige people to pursue a specific tradition. It rather offers a helping hand to the communities, which can subsequently choose themselves whether or not to grab that hand.’ 

As to the involvement of the communities in drawing up the inventory the McCleery’s said that they had chosen for an active approach of local organisations and individuals which seem the best suited as co-collectors. It was easy to put in data from various locations. The input was subsequently ‘tagged’, other keywords were added, so that for instance simply comparable traditions could be found or categorised and for example it was also possible to search by town or region. The input for the Up Helly Aa fire festival on the Shetland Islands for instance was tagged with ‘Shetland Islands’, ‘festival’, with appropriate subcategories like ‘Lerwick’ (the capital of the island where the festival takes place) and ‘fire festival’. It makes the website easily searchable.

The expenses for the website were not particularly high; most of them were made for the first set-up of the database. Wiki is a relatively cheap method allowing people to put in their own data in a simple way, by means of templates. Through Facebook, Twitter and other means publicity was given to the initiative. Promotional packs, folders and posters were spread as well. The packs also contained a guide to accessing and using the wiki.

Intellectual property

Of course there were problems to cope with during the project. A fundamental problem related to the content was the issue of authenticity and intellectual property. To what extent is domestic use changed into something else by putting it on an inventory? Could, for instance, commercial parties hijack it? The McCleery’s mentioned the New Year’s Eve celebration in Edinburgh (Edinburgh’s Hogmanay) as an example. Meanwhile it has developed into a commercially directed festival that overshadowed the old local traditions. 

Another, more practical problem, was that youngsters in particular felt attracted to the project. Young people are generally much cleverer in using new social media. As an unwelcome result the older generation, though very aware of traditions, could not be reached well enough. This makes the inventory rather one-sided. The McCleery’s consider it a challenge to get these older generations more involved in the inventory. The problem will decrease however, in their view, because the new social media will be more and more established, also with the elderly. It does show, however, that by a too strong emphasis on technique (the new social media) the real objective (reaching as many communities as possible) is getting somewhat out of sight. Different kinds of communication strategies are needed and one must not solely focus on Twitter. 

A suitable database for communities

Dries Van Den Broucke works for Kunsten en Erfgoed (Arts and Heritage), and is responsible for the implementation of the heritage policy of the Flemish government. As mentioned the suitability of the inventory for the communities themselves to keep their heritage alive was the central issue in his lecture. In Flanders the specific task of facilitating the heritage communities is accomplished by setting up a network of heritage actors and developing a database for ICH. Flanders gives financial support to organisations like Tapis Plein and Volkskunde Vlaanderen (Folk Culture Flanders), while exchanging knowledge and expertise. In fact Flanders wants to secure a network for both areas. Volkskunde Vlaanderen for instance, concentrates mainly on parades, festivals and rituals.

This expertise is meant to be disclosed by means of the database. In this database not only the ICH in Flanders is visible, but there is also attention for best practices of safeguarding and expertise cores. Furthermore the intention is that concrete examples are given of safeguarding measures and measures for the transmission of ICH. In the database heritage communities themselves can register their ICH and match it with their plans for safeguarding. Good pilot projects are also disclosed through the database. This new course is only at the beginning in Flanders, but one is very ambitious. In Flanders people hope that the inventory will develop on an international scale as well, as an example for other countries.

In the Netherlands the inventorying is yet to begin. Still locally and regionally several plans several plans have been made for developing a pilot project in his province. Culture officer Adriaan Buiks spoke about the plans in his province Overijssel. The task of implementation of the provincial research will be given to a professional, independent organisation: the IJsselacademie. As UNESCO gives a central role to the communities in safeguarding their ICH, it is important to choose for a bottom-up approach.