What links traditional craft skills with the Notting Hill Carnival, the Cornish language, the Norfolk rotation, Arbroath Smokies, sea shanties, and Plough Monday? They, and many, many more, are all part of the rich fabric of Intangible Cultural Heritage, or our living heritage, which make individual villages, towns, regions and counties distinctive and different and what they are. In many cases these are customs and traditions that have been carried on for centuries by ordinary people rather than any organisation or national society.
These are recognised throughout the world as part of our Intangible Cultural Heritage (our living heritage), as distinct from our tangible cultural heritage. For the latter, they are essentially our buildings such as stately homes and castles, our landscapes, and our historical artefacts in museums and libraries – things that can be seen. For our living heritage, the craft skills and the traditions cannot actually be ‘seen’ in themselves, which is why they are ‘intangible’. Most countries are able to identify traditional crafts, such as violin making in Cremona, Italy, flamenco dancing in Spain, samurai sword making in Japan, and list them in a similar way to World Heritage Sites. They are significant to the individual communities and need to be supported.
Sadly, the UK is not able to do that. This country is one of only 12 out of 193 signed up to UNESCO that has not ratified the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. The UK was one of the world leaders in our tangible cultural heritage with the National Trust, Historic England and the listings of important and significant buildings in Grade I, II and so on. The British Museum and other museums and libraries have been in existence for centuries to ensure that our heritage objects are displayed, conserved and looked after for future generations. But what of our intangible cultural heritage, surely this is just as important? Sadly on that we are really far, far behind almost every other country in the world.
The UNESCO Convention identifies five different domains as part of our intangible cultural heritage:
- Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
- Performing arts;
- Social practices, rituals and festive events;
- Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
- Traditional craftsmanship
And it is the latter particularly, and my interest in heritage crafts that mean that this post is being written.
And the lack of ratification is, simply, a lack of government will. The cost is $150,000 a year to sign up to the Convention, which would then give the UK a seat at the table, representing this country with such a rich living heritage; that seat is so badly needed post-Brexit. This is really nothing in terms of government spending, although, to be fair, there would be costs on top of that to ensure that the five domains were surveyed and plans in place for support. However Heritage Crafts surveying the sector with its regular issuing of the Red List of Endangered Crafts are already on the case, and their Endangered Crafts Fund and The President’s Award support the passing on of craft skills. This shows that it won’t cost a fortune to be done!
It would also mean, as said by Professor Tim Ingold of Aberdeen University: this is really about revitalising skills and practices that have the potential to be transformative for future generations. This is much bigger than Arbroath smokies and Stilton cheese. It is about placing values of care and custodianship, as well as respect for difference, at the heart of the ways we live.’
It would mean that, similar to the ways in which for the UK City of Culture, people get together to define what makes their city special, what they can do to produce a programme of cultural events that have a lasting legacy, each village, rural area, town, city, county and region could, as Professor Ingold states, place values of care and custodianship and a respect for difference on what they feel is important. In this fractured society, it could bring people together to identify and share their cultural heritage.
With seven different Secretaries of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport over the last five years Intangible Cultural Heritage has clearly not been a priority, but it would be fantastic if it was! Ratification would not be a panacea to everything but it would mean that it has a place in the department and our wonderful traditions would be surveyed and not simply regarded as not worth anything.
If you feel that this is important, and you have got to the end of this post, you can make a difference. Everyone living in the UK has an MP and, as their constituent, it is hoped that they would take on issues that concern you (they are after your vote in the end!). It is not difficult to write to them, you can do so here and it doesn’t need a proper letter sent by post, you can simply email them. Please use any of this post to make your point (I’m not worried at all about copyright here, just want to get that Convention ratified!), and ask them to contact the Secretary of State at DCMS to encourage her (Lucy Frazer as I write this, but who knows after a month or two??) to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Stress that the UK is one of only 12 countries out of 193 not to have done so, and let’s see if together we can make things happen!