Browsing UNESCO’s website I came across two lists; the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The concept of intangible heritage intrigues me; clearly a dance, a song or a ceremony can be classified as cultural heritage. Indeed, when we talk about our heritage, these intangible elements are often a key aspect of cultural identity. I am somewhat curious though, as to how we “safeguard” this type of heritage? More to the point how do we “protect” the old skills and traditions without inhibiting development?
Take, for example, the first item on the list – Al Sadu, the traditional weaving of the United Arab Emirates. UNESCO describes the threat to this traditional skill:
“The rapid economic development and social transformations brought about by the advent of oil in the Emirates have caused a sharp decline in the practice of Al Sadu. The pastoral Bedouin communities have dispersed among urban settlements, and young women increasingly work outside the home. The bearers of Al Sadu are now mostly older women whose numbers are declining.”
So, to summarise, the changing socio-economic climate of the country and the changing role of women has led to the natural decline of this skill. Should we really be stepping in to preserve it in this case? Is the skill an important part of the countries cultural history? Clearly, yes, since someone sought its nomination for the list. How do we safeguard this skill, though? We cannot simply declare that the skill must be practised or preserved by the local people.
UNESCO also comments that “To be kept alive, intangible cultural heritage must be relevant to its community, continuously recreated and transmitted from one generation to another.” Given this definition this weaving skill does not seem to be still “relevant to its community”. The list leaves me asking who gets to determine intangible elements and, more to the point, should the international community have the right to intervene in local lifestyles?