Last Updated on October 18, 2020

History of the UNESCO definitions of ICH Intangible cultural heritage.

A Short History on UNESCO

As the UNESCO 2003 definition of ICH has been the inspiration for my research, I start with UNESCO’s definitions of cultural heritage (see Footnote 1).

As stated on their website (UNESCO), UNESCO was founded in 1945, at the end of the Second World War.

Its constitution was ratified in 1946 by 20 countries, but more countries joined over the years.

At the time of writing, UNESCO has 195 nation members and 10 associate members (UNESCO, no date b).

The idea behind UNESCO’s creation was to have an organisation representing a culture of peace.

Table 2 and Table 3 list some of the most significant treaties, recommendations and conventions regarding cultural heritage, in relation to this thesis.

The first UNESCO convention regarding the protection of cultural property (movable: museum collections and immovable: architecture) was issued in 1954 (UNESCO, 1954).

It was inspired by The Hague Conventions of 1899 (see footnote 2) and 1907 (see footnote 3) and by the Washington Pact of 1935, and its aim was to protect cultural property in the event of war.

In 1968, recommendations were made to protect cultural property endangered by public or private works (UNESCO, 1968).

1899 – 1964: UNESCO Timeline for ICH


UNESCO ICH (Intangible cultural heritage)  timeline from 1899.

1968 – 2005: UNESCO Timeline for ICH


UNESCO ICH (Intangible cultural heritage)  timeline from 1968 to 2005.

In this thesis, I compare the UNESCO 1972 definition with the 2003 definition of cultural heritage, as they are the most pivotal in the shift from a static and materialistic view of heritage to one that includes intangible elements and in which people are central.

Organizations Who Define Cultural Heritage

These two are not the only definitions on cultural heritage that UNESCO and other international organisations, such as the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) have ever issued.

Other charters, recommendations and resolutions on cultural heritage have been issued, some of which include definitions (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004; Ahmad, 2006).

ICOMOS, for instance, issued the Venice Charter in 1964 (ICOMOS, 1964), which I will return to regarding authenticity (2.5).

However, UNESCO 1972 and 2003 are the only two conventions with a definition of cultural heritage (the word ‘conventions’ meaning that they define rules to which UNESCO’s member states have to abide by as law (UNESCO, no date c)). Article 1 of the 1972 definition states (UNESCO, 1972, p. 2):

For the purpose of this Convention, the following shall be considered as “cultural heritage”: monuments . . . groups of buildings . . . sites . . . of outstanding universal value from the historical, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological point of view.

(UNESCO, 1972: 2)

Cultural Property vs Cultural Heritage

In this definition, the expression ‘cultural property’ is abandoned in favour of ‘cultural heritage’ and the division between movable and immovable is dropped.

The only things considered as “cultural heritage” are monuments, buildings and sites, which are of “outstanding value” for history, art or science.

What outstanding value means is not explained in the definition, but it is enough, for the purpose of this study, to highlight that monuments, buildings and sites were the only things that UNESCO considered worthy of being labeled “cultural heritage” for protection.

It soon became clear though, that UNESCO’s position was ethnocentric, as not all cultures in the world place the same value on monuments, buildings and sites.

As Munjeri (2004) indicates, Europe became overrepresented in the UNESCO’s lists and a preference for monuments portrayed a very fixed view of culture in which, ‘what qualified as cultural heritage was deemed to be stable, and static’ (Munjeri, 2004, p. 13). Isar argues (2011, p. 45):

The World Heritage List would inevitably be skewed towards those countries richly endowed with buildings (mainly monumental) and places that satisfied criteria elaborated by experts whose value judgments reflected their own cultural moorings.

Isar (2011)

Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore

In 1989, the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore (UNESCO, 1989, p. 239) paved the way for the 2003 Convention definition, particularly regarding the recognition by communities:

Folklore (or traditional and popular culture) is the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group or individuals and recognized as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity.

UNESCO (1989)

The Nara Document on Authenticity (UNESCO, 1994) was another step towards the 2003 Convention, as it refers to intangible cultural aspects, by stating: ‘All cultures and societies are rooted in the particular forms and means of tangible and intangible expression which constitute their heritage’ (UNESCO, 1994, Article 7).

This document led UNESCO towards the realisation that cultural heritage cannot be limited to physical sites and monuments, but it needs to include traditions and activities. Moreover, it dropped the distinction between heritage and folklore.

Koïchiro Matsuura

In 2003, UNESCO wrote the ICH Convention. According to Isar (2011, p. 47), this convention was influenced by the election of the Japanese diplomat Koïchiro Matsuura to the position of UNESCO Director-General in 1999, because Japan was already a country with an established awareness of intangible heritage.

Indeed, Japan (which became a UNESCO member in 1951) already in 1950 had issued the Law for the Protection of Cultural Property (1950), which included tangible (both movable and immovable) and intangible elements (such as performing arts, customs, folklore).

Schmitt (2008) instead argues that it was the need to protect Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech, which started the process leading to the 2003 convention.

Whatever the reason, the 2003 UNESCO convention on ICH marks a shift in paradigm for UNESCO. Article 2 states (UNESCO, 2003, p. 2):

The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.

UNESCO (2003)

This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

The focus of this definition is on expressions of culture (other than buildings and sites), revolving around people and practices.

I will critically address the tangible/intangible separation in Chapter 3. For now, I would like to focus on the paradigm shift expressed in this definition.

Heritage paradigm shift by Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and Dr David Brown (2016)
From Lo Iacono and Brown (2016: 88)

The Heritage Paradigm Shift

Figure 3 illustrates the paradigm shift between the view reflected in the 1972 Convention (on the right) and the 2003 Convention (on the left).

The 1972 UNESCO definition, focusing exclusively on monuments, as Munjeri (2004) identifies, promoted a static view of heritage.

This reflects what Smith (2006, p. 4) calls the ‘authorized heritage discourse’, which has ‘a particular focus and emphasis . . . [on] ‘things’.

However, Smith (ibid) continues, ‘alongside this professional and authorized discourse is also a range of popular discourses and practices’.

The 2003 definition points towards the popular discourse, unlike the 1972 definition. Nevertheless, there are still contradictions in UNESCO’s heritage discourse.

I will return to these in the internationalisation section (2.6) and in Chapter 3. Overall though, the 2003 definition is much more people oriented as ‘communities, groups and . . . individuals recognize’ (UNESCO, 2003) something as part of their heritage.

Moreover, UNESCO introduces the idea that heritage can change, as it is (ibid) ‘constantly recreated’ and promotes ‘human creativity’.

The shift of focus from immutable objects towards people, their practices and heritage recreation, is reflected in two paradigms of heritage, which Bodo (2012) calls ‘essentialist’ and ‘dialogical’.

The former, Bodo (ibid) explains, sees heritage as something static; of outstanding value; inherited from the past; unchangeable and transmitted in a linear way from the curator (or the tradition’s holder) to the public.

The latter is more dynamic and sees heritage as a set of cultural expressions, material and immaterial, that should not only be preserved and transmitted but also reconstructed, renegotiated and made available for everyone to share in a social setting. Bodo (2012, p. 182) posits:

Whilst in the former, decisions are made on what is worth preserving and transmitting to future generations, in the latter, this heritage is constantly questioned and rediscovered by individuals who breathe new life into it.

Bodo (2012)

In my research, I adopt Bodo’s dialogical paradigm, to accommodate the dynamic, embodied and experiential nature of dance/heritage.

I will explore further how this applies to dance in 2.4 and in the rest of this thesis.

Heritage Dialogical Paradigm and an Emphasis on People

Another implication of a dialogical paradigm of heritage is that it leads to placing more emphasis on the present and the present needs of people, rather than only on the past.

Indeed, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1995, p. 369) considers that ‘heritage produces something new in the present that has recourse to the past’, whereas Howard (2010, p. 1) suggests that heritage is ‘that which people wish to save for the future, which clearly puts the emphasis on people and on actions taken in the present’.

Finally, according to Ashworth (2011, p. 2) heritage is ‘a process whereby objects, events, sites, performances and personalities, derived from the past, are transformed into experiences in and for the present’.

Past, present and future are interconnected and each important in understanding heritage, its transmission and safeguarding. Harrison (2010, p. 9) connects these three time dimensions, stating:

We use objects of heritage (artefacts, buildings, sites, landscapes) alongside practices of heritage (languages, music, community commemorations, conservation and preservation of objects or memories from the past) to shape our ideas about our past, present and future.

Harrison (2010)

Furthermore, transmission, which will be explored further on in this chapter (2.4), connects past present and future as heritage is ‘transmitted from generation to generation’ (UNESCO, 2003).

Ashworth (2011, p. 2) argues that heritage is connected to ‘current political, social or economic needs’. The ways in which these needs can be met, represent what Smith (2006) refers to as ‘uses of heritage’.

According to Smith (2006, p. 4), heritage can be used ‘by state-sanctioned cultural institutions and elites to regulate cultural and social tensions in the present’ as well as ‘to challenge and redefine received values and identities by a range of subaltern groups’.

Hence, ‘heritage is not necessarily about the stasis of cultural values and meanings, but may equally be about cultural change’ (ibid.).

The needs of people in the present and the uses they make of heritage reconnects with people’s centrality in heritage.

Therefore, people must be engaged in the safeguarding of cultural heritage, because ‘people are not only objects of cultural preservation but also subjects’ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004, p. 58).

Indeed, people are also central to my conceptual framework (Chapter 3), as embodied social agents with emotions. On emotions and heritage, Smith (2006, p. 2) posits (referring to a necklace passed between generations, from mother to daughter):

The real moment of heritage when our emotions and sense of self are truly engaged, is not so much in the possession of the necklace, but in the act of passing on and receiving memories and knowledge.

Smith (2006)

It also occurs in the way that we then use, reshape and recreate those memories and knowledge to help us make sense of and understand not only who we ‘are’, but also who we want to be.

Cultural Activity, Folklorisation and UNESCO Lists

The inscription in UNESCO’s lists could be beneficial to a cultural activity, as it can bring awareness and visibility to it, thus benefitting the people involved (financially and/or socially), for whom this practice is important. However, this increased visibility can lead to problems. UNESCO (2016a, para. 21) declares that:

Care must be taken to make sure this increased attention does not have a harmful effect on the intangible cultural heritage. For instance, increased tourism could have a distorting effect, as communities may change heritage to suit tourists’ demands, or create differences among groups or communities by recognizing one living expression and not another. There is also a danger of freezing heritage through a ‘folklorisation’ process or the quest for ‘authenticity’, or of the disregard of customs that govern access to secret or sacred information.

UNESCO (2016)

Adopting a dialogical paradigm (and acknowledging the existence of a continuum between essentialist and dialogical positions) can help to avoid the freezing of heritage, whilst at the same time placing value onto its transmission.

Throughout this thesis, I address the key themes of transmission, authenticity, identity, uses of heritage and internationalisation, using a dialogical approach.

Footnotes and Further Information

1- The word ‘heritage’ was adopted by UNESCO in 1972, whereas, before, UNESCO used the word ‘property’.

According to Ahmad (2006), UNESCO adopted the word ‘heritage’ to reconcile its terminology with ICOMOS, which used the words ‘monuments and sites’.

The original UNESCO classification of ‘cultural property’ included movable (museum collections) and immovable property (architectural heritage). In 1972, Ahmed (2006) explains, UNESCO adopted the word ‘heritage’, encompassing natural and cultural heritage (monuments, groups of buildings and sites).

Museum collections were excluded from UNESCO’s definition and left to the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to deal with.

UNESCO issued only two recommendations regarding museums and collections, one in 1960 (UNESCO, 1960) and one in 2015 (UNESCO, 2015).

2 – See Teixeira (2010, p. 61) for text.

3 – See McDonald (2000, p. 35) for text.

Intangible Heritage (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (Heritage Matters Book 8)
The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: Cultural Practices and Expressions of our Legacy
Safeguarding Intangible Heritage: Practices and Politics (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Intangible Heritage (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (Heritage Matters Book 8)
The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: Cultural Practices and Expressions of our Legacy
Safeguarding Intangible Heritage: Practices and Politics (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Intangible Heritage (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Intangible Heritage (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (Heritage Matters Book 8)
Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (Heritage Matters Book 8)
The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: Cultural Practices and Expressions of our Legacy
The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage: Cultural Practices and Expressions of our Legacy
Safeguarding Intangible Heritage: Practices and Politics (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)
Safeguarding Intangible Heritage: Practices and Politics (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage)

Next Page >> Case studies on ICH (Intangible Cultural Heritage)

The following two tabs change content below.
Hi - I'm Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.

Last update on 2021-01-15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API