What a wonderful Christmas present for those of us in the UK when, on 23rd December 2023, it was announced by the government that it was going to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in June 2024, after consultation until March 2024, see more here. This has been after years of advocacy and meetings with successive Ministers, Secretaries of State (four of the latter since 2020!), and civil servants. When we started this campaign the response was ‘not minded to’, then it was ‘not a priority’, and then we were told to go away and make a business case (how do you do this for story telling or clog dancing?). Early on, when we started, of the 193 countries signed up to UNESCO, the UK was one of only 27 not to have ratified the Convention; at the time of this announcement at the end of 2023, the UK was then one of only 12 out of 193 – a small club that the UK shouldn’t have been in!
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Craft (APPG Craft), set up in 2018, understood the importance of ratification and, since its formation, has had meetings with those in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Questions have been asked in parliament by the marvellous and supportive Officers of the APPG Craft and many informal conversations have been had also. The Group even got a petition together to support the advocacy and encourage ratification; this petition managed to get over 100 signatures within a week, a number of them from very prestigious people and organisations. It is clear that a great deal of effort has been put into encouraging ratification, and that there is a lot of support for it. This is why the government’s decision now is so important and why it will be a gamechanger.
It’s a tricky phrase – ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’, and not always easy to explain. Tangible Cultural Heritage is not too difficult. Essentially it’s mainly what can be seen – castles, stately homes, historical buildings, and the artefacts that go in them such as tapestries, furniture, ornaments; then there’s historical books, museum collections, and artworks. It also includes our landscapes including National Parks and designated walks such as the Pilgrims’ Way and the Pennine Way. The UK has been amongst the world leaders in how tangible heritage has been looked after and conserved through organisations such as the National Trust and Historic England, listing of important buildings, alongside support groups that focus on local and regional tangible heritage.
Our Intangible Cultural Heritage can’t be quite so succinctly defined in that, generally speaking, it’s the sorts of things that can’t always be seen, such as traditional crafts skills, languages, customs, traditions and celebrations. Perhaps thinking of it as ‘Living Heritage’ is an easier concept.
- Oral traditions and expressions, including language
- Performing arts
- Social practices, rituals and festive events
- Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
- And for me, really importantly, Traditional craft skills
The easy and trite view could be that these are only our historical customs with no relevance now, and can sometimes be viewed as being a bit weird as they cover traditions such as Morris Dancing, mummers’ plays, and cheese rolling. But it also includes sea shanties, Scottish dancing, Irish pipe playing and even the skills needed to make Arbroath Smokies and Kippers. ICH includes the intangible cultural heritage of all in that country as well so in the UK that would then include celebrations of those bringing their own traditions and heritage into the UK such as the Notting Hill Carnival and the skills of making and playing steel drums. Before that letter with the petition was sent to Oliver Dowden MP, then Secretary of State at DCMS, Professor Tim Ingold of the University of Aberdeen wrote:
‘I can imagine a sceptical reader of this letter, unconvinced of the value of craftsmanship, linguistic diversity and folksong, only finding confirmation of their view that what is it stake with ‘intangible heritage’ is no more than a miscellany of tidbits that would not be out of place in a tourist shop, serving to feed a popular appetite for nostalgia and the ‘artisanal’. They would not get the message that 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.’ (Quoted by kind permission)
That last sentence is really significant – placing values of care and custodianship, as well as respect for difference, at the heart of the ways we live.
The purposes of the Convention are specified as:
1. To safeguard the intangible cultural heritage
2. To ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned
3. To raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible and to provide for international co-operation and assistance
All this is for communities, groups and individuals (as in the Convention) – each identifying what is their own intangible cultural heritage. I’ve often likened it to the applications to be Cities of Culture. In this instance, cities list what makes them different, what it is about them that should be highlighted and celebrated, and this often includes their intangible cultural heritage, their festivals, celebrations and heritage craft skills.
Each individual, hamlet, village, town, community, city, county, region, England and the devolved countries can think about, consider and identify what makes them them, what is their intangible cultural heritage, what makes them different, what gives them a sense of identity and belonging, and what do they want to celebrate and cherish. This is the heritage that is passed down from generation to generation and:
‘… 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.‘ (from the Convention)
And, most importantly, there should be respect for that difference, not division nor competition. These identified aspects of ICH should first be surveyed and recorded, then be safeguarded, they should also be respected, and awareness of them and their importance raised at local, national and international levels.
However, there are also obligations for the government in addition. The ICH must first be identified and documented; there should be ‘research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement and transmission, through formal and non-formal education, and the revitalisation of aspects of heritage‘.
The surveying or research is already being done for traditional craft skills in the whole of the UK by Heritage Crafts by their creation of the Red List of Endangered Crafts (which is now replicated in a number of other countries), and steps have been taken through their Endangered Crafts Fund to support such crafts. But much more can and should be done such as promotion and raising awareness of such crafts, and support for training, including the establishment of full-time courses rather than the part-time courses – in many crafts the only ones available – which are usually self-funded and thus available only for those with means. And all this also applies to the other four domains specified.
The additional feature of the UNESCO Convention on ICH is that countries can identify those aspects of ICH that they would like to highlight and specify. On the press release that included pantomimes, sea shanties, and calligraphy (hurray!), and during this consultation period the government has asked for nominations. I am convinced that ratification will include much more than simply the listing a few aspects of ICH.
All photographs © Patricia Lovett MBE 2023. You’ll note that they are virtually all craft and probably won’t be surprised by that! My apologies to anyone here photographed but not acknowledged. I’ve trawled through my online album and picked out those I think suitable. These go back some years and I now can’t remember where they were taken nor of whom! However, in order these are: chair caning, cordwaining, tailoring and gold work, gilding on a shape, Morris Dancing, casting, applying gold to the gingerbread on the Cutty Sark ship, vellum making, illumination on one of my courses, cutting a quill from a feather, and calligraphy (of course!) from one of my free online Calligraphy Clips.