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tangible vs intangible cultural heritage

What is Intangible Heritage

The 2003 UNESCO Convention (2003, p. 2) calls intangible all heritage that is based on ‘practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills’.

However, the same definition includes ‘the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith’.

These elements are indeed tangible (according to the below dictionary definition of tangible).

Even without mentioning the human body as a vessel for cultural practices, labeling heritage intangible is problematic.

According to the leading online dictionaries of the English language, intangible means that it cannot be physically touched, from the Latin tangere, to touch (Collins English Dictionary – intangible, 2014; Oxford Dictionaries – intangible, 2014; Cambridge Dictionaries Online – British English definition of “intangible”, 2014; Macmillan Dictionary – intangible – definition, 2014). This is the meaning adopted in this thesis.

Intangible When Used with Heritage

The word intangible with reference to heritage though, is problematic ‘because of the polarities implied by the notions of tangible/intangible, which insert a false distinction, in the form of a binary opposition, between the material and immaterial elements of culture’ (Lo Iacono and Brown, 2016, p. 85).

Bakka (2015) argues that the text of the Convention was not meant to be analytically dissected by academics, but rather to be workable in real life, in political terms and in terms of people’ daily lives.

He adds (ibid.) that the term intangible should not be interpreted literally as ‘immaterial’ and that the focus of the 2003 Convention is not the tangible/intangible divide, but rather the concept of ‘practice’.

Bakka (ibid.) posits that the 1972 and the 2003 Conventions, rather than keeping tangible and intangible apart, are simply two different paradigms. Bakka (2015, p. 138) identifies ‘the first a paradigm for preserving, seeing, experiencing and understanding monuments in contrast to the second paradigm – for keeping up and living with practices’.

Therefore, he concludes (2015, p. 139):

The paradigm of the 2003 Convention starts with the question, is there a practice to be safeguarded? If there is, all relevant elements – material and immaterial – will be dealt with. If there are only material elements at hand, but no practice still in function can be spotted, the material elements are not relevant for the 2003 paradigm.

Bakka (2015)

Although in practical terms Bakka’s argument seems to settle the question, the theoretical concerns raised so far and their implications seem to be too many and too conspicuous to be ignored.

Gore and Grau (2014, p. 122) (dance anthropologists and academic leaders for the Choreomundus International Masters in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage) argue that the distinction between tangible and intangible in heritage is arbitrary.

In the wider field of cultural heritage, many scholars raise concerns about this distinction. Naguib (2013) argues that tangible and intangible aspects of heritage are tightly interwoven as (2008, p. 278) ‘concrete objects evoke historical events, ways of life, social structures and practices, religious systems and beliefs’.

Isar (2011, p. 49) posits that ‘all monuments, sites and artifacts embody intangible components such as spiritual values, symbols, and meanings, together with the knowledge and the know-how of craftsmanship and construction’.

ICH and Folklore

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2004), comments that there is increasing awareness of the arbitrariness of the distinction between UNESCO’s natural, tangible and intangible lists.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett adds that ICH is not a new invention but it was originally called folklore. She argues that this change in nomenclature reflects a mentality shift. She states that:

The earlier folklore model supported scholars and institutions to document and preserve a record of disappearing traditions. The most recent model seeks to sustain a living, if endangered, tradition by supporting the conditions necessary for cultural reproduction. This means according value to the ‘carriers’ and ‘transmitters’ of oral traditions, as well as to their habitus and habitat. . . . Like tangible heritage, intangible heritage is culture, like natural heritage, it is alive.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2004, p.53)

ICH versus Activities Definitions

Howard (2010) also struggles with the idea of ICH, preferring the word ‘activities’ to refer to what UNESCO calls ICH.

He states, ‘I prefer the concept of activities, as food and drink, for example, are quite tangible, though not easy to conserve, and in this case it is the continuance of the activity that is sought’ (Howard, 2010, p. 4). Similarly, Smith and Akagawa (2008, p. 6) ‘question the . . . utility of polarising debate between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritage.

Heritage only becomes ‘heritage’ when it becomes recognisable within a particular set of cultural or social values, which are themselves ‘intangible’. Smith (2006, p. 3) goes further, arguing that the in/tangible binary sustains an ‘authorized heritage discourse’ which privileges objects over people and practices, commenting, ‘all heritage is intangible. . . . However, I am not dismissing the tangible or pre-discursive, but simply deprivileging and denaturalizing it as the self-evident form and essence of heritage’.

Conversely, Skounti (2008, p. 77) contends that:

Pure immateriality is a fiction. . . . There is . . . a material dimension to every element of intangible heritage: the human brain and body that detain it, the book that retains a trace of it, the audiovisual material that captures its sound or image.

Skounti (2008)

Skounti is one of the very few experts in the field of heritage who mentions the human body as involved in heritage.

Conversely, in the dance field, the human body is central. The next section will expand on the missing body in cultural heritage.

Next Page >> Embodiment and the missing body in heritage studies.

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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.