129 Pages

Making Intangible Heritage


Gain access to the library to view online
Learn more


In Making Intangible Heritage, Valdimar Tr. Hafstein—folklorist and official delegate to UNESCO—tells the story of UNESCO's Intangible Heritage Convention. In the ethnographic tradition, Hafstein peers underneath the official account, revealing the context important for understanding UNESCO as an organization, the concept of intangible heritage, and the global impact of both. Looking beyond official narratives of compromise and solidarity, this book invites readers to witness the diplomatic jostling behind the curtains, the making and breaking of alliances, and the confrontation and resistance, all of which marked the path towards agreement and shaped the convention and the concept.

Various stories circulate within UNESCO about the origins of intangible heritage. Bringing the sensibilities of a folklorist to these narratives, Hafstein explores how they help imagine coherence, conjure up contrast, and provide charters for action in the United Nations and on the ground. Examining the international organization of UNESCO through an ethnographic lens, Hafstein demonstrates how concepts that are central to the discipline of folklore gain force and traction outside of the academic field and go to work in the world, ultimately shaping people's understanding of their own practices and the practices themselves. From the cultural space of the Jemaa el-Fna marketplace in Marrakech to the Ise Shrine in Japan, Making Intangible Heritage considers both the positive and the troubling outcomes of safeguarding intangible heritage, the lists it brings into being, the festivals it animates, the communities it summons into existence, and the way it orchestrates difference in modern societies.

Prelude: Confessions of a Folklorist

1. Making Heritage: Introduction

2. Making Threats: The Condor's Flight

3. Making Lists: The Dance Band in the Hospital

4. Making Communities: Protection as Dispossession

5. Making Festivals: Folklorisation Revisited

Postlude: Intangible Heritage as Diagnosis, Safeguarding as Treatment

Conclusion: If Intangible Heritage is the Solution, What is the Problem?


Works Cited




Published by
Published 29 August 2018
Reads 0
EAN13 9780253037961
Language English
Document size 13 MB

Legal information: rental price per page 0.0037€. This information is given for information only in accordance with current legislation.

This book is a publication of
Indiana University Press Office of Scholarly Publishing Herman B Wells Library 350 1320 East 10th Street Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA
© 2018 by Valdimar Tr. Hafstein
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Cataloging information is available from the Library of Congress.
ISBN 978-0-253-03792-3 (hardback) ISBN 978-0-253-03793-0 (paperback) ISBN 978-0-253-03794-7 (ebook)
1 2 3 4 5 23 22 21 20 19 18
Prelude: Confessions of a Folklorist 1. Making Heritage: Introduction 2. Making Threats: The Condor’s Flight
3. Making Lists: The Dance-Band in the Hospital 4. Making Communities: Protection as Dispossession 5. Making Festivals: Folklorization Revisited
Postlude: Intangible Heritage as Diagnosis, Safeguarding as Treatment
Conclusion: If Intangible Heritage Is the Solution, What Is the Problem?
Works Cited Index
Prelude Confessions of a Folklorist
FOR ME, ITdidn’t start with heritage. I came to the study of folklore through mythology. At the age of nineteen, I signed up for a class in Norse myths at the University of Iceland. It was one of the courses taught toward the major in folklore; in the following semester, I took three more. The die was cast. In the following semesters, I studied customs and rites, tales and legends, material culture: the bread and butter of folklore programs in the twentieth century. My interest in myths soon subsided for more pedestrian subjects, like everyday life and the way people give it meaning. Interpretation of texts made way for fieldwork. My parents shrugged, patiently waiting for me to get serious. My father only brought it up once, gently suggesting that whatever I chose to do, I should make sure I could provide for a family. My father had gone to law school, but during finals in his last year he was offered a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had his doubts, but my mother wanted to see the world. Within a month of his last exam, they moved with their firstborn to Stockholm. At twenty-six, my father was abroad for the first time—an accidental diplomat. Growing up, I moved with my family to Brussels and Geneva, Europe’s diplomatic capitals, EU and NATO headquarters in the former, the UN office, ILO, WHO, WIPO, and a host of other acronyms in the latter. My father moved up through the ranks. He became ambassador and Iceland’s chief negotiator in a number of intergovernmental agreements, treaties, and conventions. My mother raised four children in various cities and took on the many diplomatic tasks that came with my father’s position. They were both great at what they did. It never occurred to me that I had followed in their footsteps. Honestly. Nor to them, I think. It only dawned on me in 2005. I was thirty-two. Thirteen years had passed since I took my first folklore course. This was shortly before my father’s death in August that year, a few months after I finished my PhD at Berkeley. By then I had already been going to UNESCO and WIPO meetings for three years asa participant observer. At UNESCO, I was part of the Icelandic delegation, sitting in alphabetical order among other state delegates, most of them lawyers. At WIPO, I sat on the back benches as an observer representing either SIEF (International Society for Ethnology and Folklore) or AFS (American Folklore Society) or both. I was on my way out of WIPO’s headquarters, a thirteen-story tower encased in sapphire blue glass by Geneva’s Place des Nations. I had spent the week in the conference rooms and foyers following diplomatic debates on copyright and folklore. Crossing the marble floors of the lobby in my blue suit, briefcase in hand, it struck me: I had turned into my father. I was an accidental diplomat.
Making Heritage
WHAT UNITES BEERculture in Belgium with Chinese shadow puppetry? What do Estonian smoke saunas have in common with kimchi making in the two Koreas or with summer solstice fire festivals in the Pyrenees? How about the Capoeira circle in Brazil and the gastronomic meal of the French? How is tightrope walking in Korea like violin craftsmanship in Cremona, Italy, and how are both of these like Indonesian batik, Croatian lacemaking, Arabic coffee, and Argentinian tango? What might connect yoga in India with the ritual dance of the royal drum in Burundi, carpet weaving in Iran, or Vanuatu sand drawings? The answer: these cultural practices and expressions are all on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). That means they have been selected to represent the diversity of human creative powers. Chosen because they give aesthetic form to deeply held values, they speak of skill and competence, of bonds that tie, and of different relationships to history, society, and nature. They testify to various ways people tend to previous generations, to other people, and to the universe. UNESCO’s Representative List displays humanity at its best, showcasing its capacity to create beauty, form, and meaning out of its various particular circumstances. Sharing what they enjoy or endure, people give form to value in their cultural practices and performances (see Hymes 1975). New generations recreate these forms according to their own conditions, cultivating the talent, the knowledge, and the necessary appreciation. It is this creative dynamic that member states of UNESCO have set out to safeguard. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage makes us all responsible for the continued viability of these cultural practices and expressions—for making sure that their practitioners can keep practicing them and that future generations can continue to be inspired by them. The convention frames them in terms of cultural heritage, a concept into which UNESCO itself has breathed life over the past half century. This concept defines a particular relationship to the objects and expressions it describes, one that is of recent vintage. We tend to assume “cultural heritage” has been around forever; in fact, it is a modern coinage and its current ubiquity is limited to the last few decades (Klein 2006; Bendix 2000; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998; Lowenthal 1998; Hafstein 2012). Its novelty speaks of contemporary societies and to their own understanding of themselves, their past, present, and future (Holtorf 2012; Eriksen 2014). Valuing a building, a ritual, a monument, or a dance as cultural heritage is to reform how people relate to their practices and their built environment, and to infuse this relationship with sentiments like respect, pride, and responsibility. This reformation takes place through various social institutions that cultural heritage summons into being (centers, councils, associations, clubs, committees, commissions, juries, networks, and so on) and through the forms of display everywhere associated with cultural heritage: from the list to the festival—not to omit the exhibition, the spectacle, the catalog, the website, or the book. Folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett refers to these as metacultural artifacts (1998, 2006): cultural expressions and practices (e.g., lists and festivals) that refer to other cultural expressions and practices (carpet weaving, ritual dance, tightrope walking) and give the latter new meanings (tied, for example, to community, diversity, humanity) and new functions (e.g., attracting tourists, orchestrating difference). A hallmark of heritage, following Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, is “the problematic relationship of its objects to the instruments of their display” (1998, 156). This book brings those problems into plain view. But of course, this book is itself a metacultural artifact, a critical addition to the profusion of publications, websites, newsletters, press releases, and exhibitions brought forth as a result of UNESCO’s global success in promoting intangible heritage. The book goes back to the moments of inception, the making of the concept and of the convention dedicated to its safeguarding, and to its genealogy—events, actors, and circumstances that gave rise to intangible heritage.
The book’s ambition is to change how we think about intangible heritage. It asks questions that at times go against the grain, challenging official stories and conventional wisdom. Turning the usual order of things on its head, it asks: If intangible heritage is the solution, what is the problem? What problems do people set out to solve with the concept of intangible heritage and with the convention for its safeguarding? With what effects? I have come at these questions from various directions over the past decade and a half, as a scholar, fieldworker, policy maker, and consultant. In this book, I propose some answers. My account begins inside UNESCO headquarters in Paris with the negotiation of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Then I work my way back in a historical analysis of the present moment to reconstruct the challenges that intangible heritage is designed to meet. But the book also moves forward and outward to the convention’s implementation in different corners of the world. Citing various expressions and practices recognized as intangible heritage, I unearth the ways in which processes of selection, designation, exclusion, preservation, promotion, and display actually affect these practices and the people who practice them—that is, what difference intangible heritage makes, for better and for worse.
Fig. 1.1 UNESCO Headquarters, Place Fontenoy, Paris, France. ©Novikov Aleksey / Shutterstock.
UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage Convention signals a reformation of the concept of cultural heritage, extending international heritage policy from monuments and sites to the realm of the “intangible.” This elusive notion suggests practices and expressions that do not leave extensive material traces, such as storytelling, craftsmanship, rituals, dramas, and festivals. I observed the meetings of the committee that drafted the convention and later of the convention’s executive committee. Based on a critical ethnographic approach, complemented by archival research and case studies from the convention’s implementation, this book peers underneath the official story to reveal the importance of context for understanding what is happening. Intangible heritage—the notion of it and the convention dedicated to its safeguarding—conceals a wide divergence of views on cultural production, conservation, control, and dissent. Some of this divergence crystallizes in the concepts adopted and some in the concepts rejected—the gaps and silences of the convention’s final text. Stretching the concept of cultural heritage beyond national delimitations and inflecting it to encompass social practices and expressions, the idea of an intangible heritage of humanity is ripe with possibility and paradox.
Fig. 1.2 UNESCO’s logo for Intangible Cultural Heritage. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The terms of the convention already define how officials, bureaucrats, scholars, and community advocates carry out cultural work, and it will continue to do so for decades to come. It also sets a standard to which practitioners of various traditions around the globe now adhere in order to receive