What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?

What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?

What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?
In the text of the Convention
Article 2 – Definitions



14/17-03-2001, Turin: Round table of experts on "Intangible Cultural Heritage – Working Definitions"

20/23-10-2004, Nara: International Conference on « The Safeguarding of Tangible and Intangible Cultural...

According to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) – or living heritage – is the mainspring of our cultural diversity and its maintenance a guarantee for continuing creativity.

The Convention states that the ICH is manifested, among others, in the following domains:

Oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
Performing arts (such as traditional music, dance and theatre);
Social practices, rituals and festive events;
Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
Traditional craftsmanship.
The 2003 Convention defines ICH as the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.

The definition also indicates that the ICH to be safeguarded by this Convention:

is transmitted from generation to generation;
is constantly recreated by communities and groups, in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history;
provides communities and groups with a sense of identity and continuity;
promotes respect for cultural diversity and human creativity;
is compatible with international human rights instruments;
complies with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, and of sustainable development.
The ICH is traditional and living at the same time. It is constantly recreated and mainly transmitted orally. It is difficult to use the term authentic in relation to ICH; some experts advise against its use in relation to living heritage (see the Yamato Declaration: English | French).

The depository of this heritage is the human mind, the human body being the main instrument for its enactment, or – literally – embodiment. The knowledge and skills are often shared within a community, and manifestations of ICH often are performed collectively.

Many elements of the ICH are endangered, due to effects of globalization, uniformization policies, and lack of means, appreciation and understanding which – taken together – may lead to the erosion of functions and values of such elements and to lack of interest among the younger generations.

The Convention speaks about communities and groups of tradition bearers, without specifying them. Time and again it was stressed by the governmental experts who prepared the draft of the Convention that such communities have an open character, that they can be dominant or non dominant, that they are not necessarily linked to specific territories and that one person can very well belong to different communities and switch communities.

The Convention introduces, by establishing the Representative List, the idea of “representativeness”. “Representative” might mean, at the same time, representative for the creativity of humanity, for the cultural heritage of States, as well as for the cultural heritage of communities who are the bearers of the traditions in question.

See also the Preamble of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Intangible Heritage domains

Intangible Heritage domains in the 2003 Convention
In the text of the Convention
Article 2 – Definitions

22/24-01-2002, Rio de Janeiro: Expert meeting on “Intangible Cultural Heritage: Priority Domains for an Internati...

The Convention states that the intangible cultural heritage is manifested, among others, in the following domains:

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.

The Royal Ancestral Ritual in the Jongmyo Shrine and its Music
© Cultural Properties AdministrationFew elements of intangible cultural heritage are limited to a single domain. Consider a shamanic rite, for example—a complex manifestation of music and dance, prayers and songs, clothing and sacred objects, ritual and ceremony, demonstrating knowledge of the human body, of nature, and of the universe. Festivals, by their very nature, typically involve various types of expressions: song, dance, theatre, feasting, oral traditions, artisanship, sports, and entertainments. And the boundaries between domains cannot be imposed externally, but are determined by each community in its own way. One community’s chanted verse may be heard by others as song; one community may define as “theatre” a form that others might define as “dance”; one community may make minute distinctions among forms while another community considers diverse expressions as a single form.

Most States that have begun identifying the ICH present in their territory distinguish domains that differ in some degree from the set elaborated in the Convention: in certain cases the repartition of the domains is different, while in other cases the domains are more or less the same as here, but named differently.

Since the list of domains provided in the Convention is not intended to be complete or exclusionary, the Intergovernmental Committee may one day wish to enlarge the number of domains, or to explicitly mention subdomains for the domains already established. This might concern such (sub)domains as, for instance, “traditional play and games”, “culinary traditions”, “animal husbandry”, “pilgrimage” or “places of memory”—all of which have already been employed in one or more of the inventories of States Parties to the Convention.


Last update: 2008-03-26 11:41:56


oral traditions and expressions

Oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage

Scope and Content

The domain of oral traditions and expressions encompasses an enormous variety of forms including proverbs, riddles, tales, nursery rhymes, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and so on. They transmit knowledge, values and collective memory and play an essential role in cultural vitality; many forms have always been a popular pastime. Although language is a core element of the intangible cultural heritage of many communities, language per se is not promoted under the 2003 Convention. It is, however, to be safeguarded as a vehicle of the ICH.

The Palestinian Hikaye
©Rafi Safieh

Some types of expressions are common and can be used by the entire community; some are used by restricted groups, for instance among adult women only. In many societies, performing oral traditions is a highly specialized occupation, with professional performers often held in high esteem as the guardians of collective memories. Professional performers are found in all regions. The griots or dyeli from Africa are well known; it is less known that in countries such as Germany or the U.S.A. there are today hundreds of professional storytellers.

Oral traditions and expressions are typically passed on by word of mouth, which usually entails variation, in lesser or greater degree. Their enactment involves a combination—differing from genre to genre, from context to context and from performer to performer—of reproduction, improvisation and creation. This combination renders oral traditions and expressions particularly vibrant and attractive but also sometimes fragile, as their survival depends on an uninterrupted chain of transmission.

While language is essential to most forms of ICH, it is especially so for the domain of oral traditions and expressions: specific languages shape and embody their very content. The loss of a language inevitably leads to the loss of oral traditions and expressions, but at the same time it is in those oral expressions themselves, and in their social and cultural enactments, that a language is best safeguarded, rather than in any dictionary, grammar or database. Languages live in songs and stories, riddles and rhymes, and thus the safeguarding of languages and the safeguarding of oral traditions and expressions are two aspects of the same task.

See also Endangered languages programme and a Compendium on ongoing activities concerning languages and multilingualism, 2006–2007 (English | French)

Some Examples


he Olonkho, Yakut Heroic Epos

These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

  • The Olonkho, Yakut heroic epos (Russian Federation), reflects Yakut beliefs and customs, shamanic practices, oral history and values. The “Olonkhosut” or narrator must excel in acting, singing, eloquence and poetic improvisation. Like most oral traditions, there are multiple versions of Olonkho, the longest amounting to 15,000 lines of verse.
  • The Palestinian Hikaye is told by women to other women and children, and offers an often critical view of society from women’s perspectives. Almost every Palestinian woman over the age of 70 is a Hikaye teller, and the tradition is mainly carried on by elder women. However, it is not unusual for girls and young boys to tell tales to one another for practice or pleasure.
  • The Hudhud chants of the Ifugao in the Philippines are performed during the sowing season, rice harvest and funeral wakes. A complete recitation lasting for several days is generally conducted by an elderly woman who acts as the community’s historian and preacher.
Challenges to viability

Like other forms of ICH, oral traditions are threatened by such phenomena of modern life as rapid urbanization, large-scale migration, industrialization and environmental change. However, the omnipresent modern mass media – books, periodicals, radio, television and Internet – may affect the process of oral transmission in both positive and negative ways. The challenge consists especially in the expanded range of their influence (sometimes global, as with the Internet) and in its increased speed. Oral traditions and expressions often take place during leisure moments, and as those times are increasingly filled by other media channels and products, there are fewer opportunities for oral expressions. Epic poems that were once performed for days on end may be abbreviated to a few hours; courting songs that were once a prerequisite for marriage may be replaced by CDs or digital music files. Socioeconomic prosperity may be accompanied by the breakdown of extended multi-generational families, and a television rather than a grandparent comes to serve as a babysitter for young children.

Some Safeguarding Practices

The Hudhud Chants of the Ifugao
©Renato S. Rastrollo / NCCA -ICH /UNESCO

The most crucial part of safeguarding oral traditions and expressions is preserving their social function, their role in everyday or festive life and the inter-personal nature of their transmission. This may mean multiplying opportunities for elders to recount tales and legends to young people at home or in schools, or it may mean encouraging the traditional festivities and events at which oral traditions and expressions are enacted. It may involve reinforcing formal apprenticeship where that is needed to master an extended form such as epic poetry, or it may involve creating new contexts such as storytelling festivals in which traditional creativity finds new expression. In the spirit of the 2003 Convention, safeguarding measures should focus on oral traditions and expressions as processes rather than as products.

To safeguard the Art of Akyns, six studios have been established in different regions of Kyrgyzstan where recognized epic-tellers, the Akyns, pass on their knowledge and skills to groups of young apprentices preparing themselves to become modern Akyns in a few years. The teachers make use of audio-visual equipment, recordings and texts, but the main transmission process remains inter-personal and traditional in its essence.

Communities, researchers and institutions also have the possibility to make use of new information technologies to help safeguard oral traditions in all their richness, including textual variations and different styles of performances. The digital era brings a unique opportunity to record not only expressive features such as intonation and a much larger number of variants, but also the interaction between performers and audience and such non-verbal aspects as gestures and mimicry. Safeguarding through collection and documentation also imposes a responsibility to disseminate the accumulated heritage through appropriate technologies and broadcast channels, so that mass media and information technologies help to strengthen oral traditions and expressions rather than weakening them.

Last update: 2007-10-16 18:33:27


Performing arts (such as traditional music, dance and theatre)
  • In the text of the Convention

Scope and Content

The expressions central to the performing arts include especially vocal or instrumental music, dance, and theatre, but there are indeed many other traditional forms such as pantomime, sung verse, and certain forms of storytelling. Performing arts include a diversity of cultural expressions that together testify to human creativity and that are also found in different degree in many other domains of intangible heritage.

Urtiin Duu - Traditional Folk Long Song
© Sonom-Ish Yundenbat

Music is of course the most often encountered of the performing arts, found in every society and in most cases an integral part of other performing art forms and other domains of ICH such as rituals, festive events, or oral traditions. We find it in the most diverse contexts: profane or sacred, classical or popular, closely connected to work, entertainment, even politics and economics that may call upon music to recount a people’s past, sing the praises of a powerful person, or accompany or facilitate commercial transactions. The occasions on which it is performed are equally varied: marriages, funerals, rituals and initiations, festivities, all kinds of entertainment, or other social practices.

Dance may be described simply as ordered bodily expression, often with musical accompaniment, sung or instrumental. Apart from its physical aspect, the rhythmic movements, steps, or gestures of dance often serve to express a sentiment or mood or to illustrate a specific event or daily act, such as religious dances or those depicting hunting, warfare, or even sexual activities.

Traditional theatre performances often combine acting, singing, dance and music, dialogue, narration or recitation, but also include puppetry of all kinds as well as pantomime. These arts should perhaps not only be thought of as “performances” like those on a stage. In fact, many traditional music practices are not carried out for an external audience, such as songs accompanying agricultural work or music that is part of a ritual. In a more intimate setting, lullabies are sung to help a baby sleep.

In its definition of intangible heritage, the Convention includes the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces that are associated with intangible expressions and practices. In the performing arts, this includes for example musical instruments, masks, costumes and other body ornaments used in dance, and the scenery and props of theatre. Performing arts are often performed in specific places; when such spaces, built or natural, are closely linked to those expressions, we may speak of cultural spaces in the Convention’s terms.

Some examples

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia
© Luiz Santoz / UNESCO

These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

  • The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia (Brazil) derives from the dances and cultural traditions of the region’s slaves of African origin, incorporating as well elements of Portuguese culture, particularly the language and poetic forms. This local genre has influenced the development of the urban samba, which became in the twentieth century an essential symbol of Brazilian national identity.
  • The Azerbaijani Mugham is a classical music tradition that reflects the tumultuous history of that country. Characterized by a high degree of improvisation, it resists being transcribed in fixed form. Multiple versions are transmitted by masters who train students in the arts of interpretation and improvisation.
  • The Mbende Jerusarema Dance (Zimbabwe) is characterized by acrobatic and sensual movements, accompanied by polyrhythmic percussion. A source of pride during the struggle against colonial rule, the dance imitates the motions of the mole, for the Shona people a symbol of fertility, sexuality and family.
  • Kutiyattam, Sanskrit Theatre (India), is one of that country’s most ancient traditions, a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and local Kerala traditions. In its stylized and codified theatrical language, gestures and eye expressions are prominent, expressing the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Traditionally enacted in the sacred space of temples, Kutiyattam performances always include an oil lamp on stage to symbolise a divine presence.
  • The Wayang Puppet Theatre (Indonesia), nurtured for ten centuries in the royal courts of Java and Bali, is an ancient form of storytelling. Puppets are articulated, typically of flat leather or carved wood and cloth, manipulated by a puppeteer to the accompaniment of dialogue, singing, and a musical ensemble (the gong-chime ensemble known as gamelan).
  • Slovácko Verbuňk, Recruit Dances (Czech Republic) are traditionally danced by men of all ages. Not bound to a precise choreography, the dances are instead marked by spontaneity and individual expression, and by acrobatic contests. Their structural complexity and variety of movements make Slovácko Verbuňk a cultural expression of great artistic value, expressing the cultural identity and diversity of the region.

Challenges to viability

Many performing arts today face multiple threats. As cultural practices are standardized, the practices of precious arts are abandoned, while at the same time increased popularity may benefit only certain expressions, jeopardizing their integrity or irreversibly disrupting the very essence of the tradition.

Music offers perhaps the best example of this, in the phenomenon that is called World Music. Despite the cultural exchange it encourages and the creativity that enriches the international artistic scene, the World Music market is problematic because of its standardizing and distorting effects. It often leaves little place for the key elements of certain musical practices that are crucial in the process of transmission within the concerned communities.

Many traditions of music, dance, and theatre figure into cultural promotion as tourist attractions, included for example in the itineraries of tour operators. Although this may bring revenues to a country or community and offer a window onto its culture, it is not uncommon that such processes create new forms of presenting the performing arts that are abbreviated, losing certain elements important to the tradition, and may turn a traditional form into mere entertainment.

In other cases, seemingly unrelated phenomena can profoundly affect the viability of a tradition. Thus, environmental degradation such as deforestation can deprive a musical tradition of the wood needed to make traditional instruments.

Further, it has often been noted that many musical traditions that once had musical scales diverging from western music have been adapted to music notation and formal education. Such processes of musical homogenization often result in the loss of knowledge linked to the tonal subtleties of a given music or dance, or needed for making instruments, as for example a string instrument when the introduction of frets fundamentally changes the instrument.

Some safeguarding examples

Khazan Rajabiy, Master of maqoms, during a masterclass
©Otanazar Mat’yakubov

Safeguarding measures for traditional performing arts should focus primarily on transmission and strengthening the relations of master and apprentice. Measures should reinforce the links between master and apprentice and ensure their future, strengthening the transmission of knowledge and techniques of playing or making instruments, the subtleties of a song, the movements of a dance or a theatrical interpretation. To this end, “Master Classes” are often organized, as for the Shashmaqom Music (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), the Sosso Bala (Guinea) or the Drametse Ngacham, a sacred mask dance in Bhutan. Transmission activities may be integrated into school curricula, as for example for the Tumba Francesa in Cuba.

Another field of action is that of inventorying, researching, documenting and archiving. Countless sound recordings are stored in archives and collections around the world, dating back a century or more. Often threatened by deterioration, these need to be digitized, which allows at the same time inventorying existing documents. For the Mugam of Azerbaijan, support to the National Archives seeks to ensure that the recordings provide a source of inspiration, training and knowledge to new generations of musicians.

In the particular case of the performing arts, a crucial role can be played by cultural media, institutions and industries in developing audiences and raising awareness among the general public. Such campaigns can inform the audience about the various aspects of an expression, allowing it to gain a new and broader popularity. In some cases, they can even help to cultivate connoisseurship and prepare audiences to carry out an active participation in the performance itself.

In order to ensure sustained safeguarding, the various fields of action presented here often call for increased capacity building, in particular in training staff. In Georgia, for example, students are trained in fieldwork methods and recording of polyphonies, while at the same time laying the basis of an inventory through creating a database. In Ethiopia an ambitious research and training project is underway to collect traditional music, dance and instruments across the country, and to support the creation of a university curriculum in the field of ethnomusicology.

Last update: 2007-10-25 23:05:10


Social practices, rituals and festive events
  • In the text of the Convention

Scope and Content

The Carnival of Binche
© Musée International du Carnaval et du Masque de Binche

Social practices, rituals and festive events are habitual activities that structure the lives of communities and groups and that are shared by and relevant for large parts of them. They take their meaning from the fact that they reaffirm the identity of practitioners as a group or community. Performed in public or private, these social, ritual and festive practices may be linked to the life cycle of individuals and groups, the agricultural calendar, the succession of seasons or other temporal systems. They are conditioned by views of the world and by perceived histories and memories. They vary from simple gatherings to large-scale celebratory and commemorative occasions. While each of these subdomains is vast in and of itself, there is also a great deal of overlap between them.

Rituals and festive events, which usually take place at special times and places, often call a community’s attention to worldviews and features of past experience. Access may be limited in the case of certain rituals; many communities know initiation rites or burial ceremonies of this sort. Festive events often take place in public space without limitations on access—carnivals are a well-known example, and festivities marking New Year, the beginning of Spring or the end of harvest are common in all regions of the world.

Social practices shape everyday life and are known, if not shared, by all members of a community. In the framework of the Convention, attention may be paid to social practices that have a special relevance for a community and that are distinctive for them, providing them with a sense of identity and continuity. For instance, in many communities greeting ceremonies are casual, but they are quite elaborate in others, serving as a marker of identity. Similarly, practices of giving and receiving gifts may vary from casual events to important markers of authority, dependence or allegiance.

Social practices, rituals and festive events involve a dazzling variety of forms: worship rites; rites of passage; birth, wedding and funeral rituals; oaths of allegiance; traditional legal systems; traditional games and sports; kinship and ritual kinship ceremonies; settlement patterns; culinary traditions; designation of status and prestige ceremonies; seasonal ceremonies; gender-specific social practices; hunting, fishing and gathering practices; among others. They also encompass a wide variety of expressions and material elements: special gestures and words, recitations, songs or dances, special clothing, processions, animal sacrifice, special foods.

Some Examples

The Royal Ancestral Ritual in the Jongmyo Shrine and its Music
© Cultural Properties Administration

These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

  • Practised at the Jongmyo Shrine in Seoul (Republic of Korea), the Royal Ancestral Ritual encompasses song, dance and music, all parts of a century-old ceremony worshipping the ancestors and expressing filial piety.
  • Twice a year, at the time of seasonal migration in the pastoral lands of the inner Niger Delta, the river crossing of the cattle marks the beginning of the Yaaral and Degal festivities celebrated by the Peul of Mali, which include competitions for the most beautifully decorated herd, songs and recitations of pastoral poems.

  • Tracing their ancestry to West and Central African regions with diverse languages and cultural practices, the Moore Town Maroons of Jamaica elaborated new collective religious ceremonies that today incorporate various spiritual traditions, representing the very foundations of Maroon heritage.

  • The Carnival of Binche in Belgium, the Oruro Carnival in Bolivia or the Makishi Masquerade in Zambia involve colourful pageantry, singing and dancing, and various types of costumes or masks. In some cases these festive events are a means of temporarily overcoming social differences by assuming different identities and of commenting on social or political conditions through mockery or amusement.

Challenges to Viability
Because they depend on the broad participation of practitioners and their communities, social practices, rituals and festive events are strongly affected by the inevitable transformation or incorporation of communities in modern societies, especially by such processes as ongoing migration, individualisation, the general introduction of formal education, the growing influence of large scriptural religious systems and other effects of globalisation.

Migration, especially of young people, may draw practitioners away from their communities, thus putting a specific practice and its transmission at stake. But at the same time, social practices, rituals and festive events may serve as special occasions on which people return home to celebrate with their family and community, reaffirming identity and keeping up their affiliation with their traditions.

Rituals often have a close connection with systems of belief, and in many cases express reverence for a natural or spiritual deity, often through such acts as various kinds of sacrifice. The spread of world religions may discourage the maintenance of theses rituals, which are often labeled as “primitive” or “sinful”. Government regulations—often couched in terms of concern for health, sanitation or nutrition—may also interfere with the practice of many rituals and ceremonies that are the considered as “harmful” or “wasteful”.

Many communities find that tourists are increasingly participating in festive events organised by those communities. While on the one hand tourism can contribute to reviving a traditional event, thus giving a “market value” to intangible cultural heritage, it may on the other hand have a distorting effect, as the performances are often reduced to show adapted highlights in order to meet tourist demands. The viability of social practices, rituals and especially festive events may also depend quite heavily on general socio-economic conditions, as the preparations, the production of costumes and masks and the provisions for participants often require substantial expenditure that may not be supportable at times of economic privation.

Some Safeguarding Approaches

Healing Ritual connected to the Vimbuza Healing Dance
©Francois-Xavier Freland / UNESCO

Ensuring the continuity of social practices, rituals or festive events often requires the mobilization of large numbers of individuals and the social institutions and mechanisms of a society. While respecting customary practices that might limit participation to certain groups, practitioners and institutions at the same time may wish to open up the way to the broadest public participation. In some cases, legal and formal measures need to be taken to ensure access to the sacred places, crucial objects, or natural resources necessary for the performance of social practices, rituals and festive events.

The Vimbuza healing ritual, widely practiced in the rural parts of Northern Malawi, developed in the mid-nineteenth century as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences but fell into disfavour in recent decades. Safeguarding efforts create incentives for young people to learn about the Vimbuza healing dance and to foster dialogue between Vimbuza healers and government and non-government bodies dealing with medical issues through broadcast panel discussions, training workshops and festivals.

The rich variety of social practices performed at the Jemaa el-Fna Square in Marrakesh (Morocco) were threatened with gradual disappearance due to urban growth and development projects that produced heavy traffic and air pollution. In an attempt to reconcile urban planning and economic development with cultural and environmental concerns, authorities created pedestrian streets converging on the Square and reorganized motor traffic so as to decrease the number of cars and tourist coaches, safeguarding the social practices.

To enhance transmission and to protect the originality of the Carnival de Barranquilla, a local foundation has created and supports a new event, the Children’s Carnival, which has become a vital element of the carnival performed in Colombia. Practitioners received financial support for the production of handcrafted objects including floats, extravagant costumes, head ornaments, music instruments, animal masks and other artefacts. A micro-credit program gave several artisans and practitioners the possibility to earn additional income, improving their life quality and stressing the importance of their involvement in the carnival.
Last update: 2007-02-07 12:45:42


Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe

  • In the text of the Convention

Scope and Content

The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya
© Vice Ministerio de Cultura

“Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe” include knowledge, know-how, skills, practices and representations developed and perpetuated by communities in interaction with their natural environment. These cognitive systems are expressed through language, oral traditions, attachment to a place, memories, spirituality, and worldview, and they are displayed in a broad complex of values and beliefs, ceremonies, healing practices, social practices or institutions, and social organisation. Such expressions and practices are as diverse and variegated as the sociocultural and ecological contexts from which they originate, and they often underlie other domains of ICH as described by the Convention.

This domain encompasses numerous areas such as traditional ecological wisdom, indigenous knowledge, ethnobiology, ethnobotany, ethnozoology, traditional healing systems and pharmacopeia, rituals, foodways, beliefs, esoteric sciences, initiatory rites, divinations, cosmologies, cosmogonies, shamanism, possession rites, social organisations, festivals, languages, as well as visual arts.

Some Examples

Vanuatu Sand Drawings
©Vanuatu National Cultural Council

These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

Challenges to Viability

Although they constitute the very foundation of the identity of the cultural communities concerned, these knowledges and practices are particularly vulnerable in a globalising world where little place is left for traditional knowledge and the protection of the environment and of belief systems, even if the ecological knowledge of traditional healers may sometimes attract the interest of scientists or of a global pharmaceutical industry.

Rapid urbanisation and extension of agricultural lands may directly affect the natural environment of particular value to a given community, such as a sacred forest necessary for an initiation ritual, or a forest reserve that provides primary resources such as wood for woodcrafting. Desertification and extensive deforestation contribute to the decline of biodiversity and to the gradual disappearance of certain species, thus diminishing the traditional pharmacopeia or threatening traditional crafts, as for example making ritual costumes from plant fibres.

Some Safeguarding Approaches

The Kankurang, Manding Initiatory Rite
©Direction du patrimoine Culturel, Sénégal

Safeguarding a world view or a system of beliefs faces even more complex challenges than protecting a natural environment. Beyond the external challenges to the social and natural environment, many poor or marginalized communities are themselves inclined to adopt a way of life or a paradigm of development that is in fact detrimental to their traditions and customs. Protecting the natural environment and safeguarding a community's cosmology and other elements of its intangible cultural heritage are often closely connected. For instance, an essential component of the activities designed for safeguarding the Kankurang, Manding Initiatory Rite (Senegal and Gambia) is protecting the natural environment in which the ritual is practiced. This will be ensured through classification of sacred forests, organizing training in protected areas management and replanting plant species indispensable to the ritual.

The action plan for safeguarding the Woodcrafting Knowledge of the Zafimaniry (Madagascar) includes legal protections through the deposit of patents at WIPO and national patent systems. This will help protect significant motifs that are part of the complex graphic art linked to the very identity of the Zafimaniry community. A preliminary and thorough identification of those elements to be patented, carried out by the community concerned, is prerequisite to this protection. Replanting scarce tree species vital to the craft is also part of the action plan.

The practice of Sand Drawing (Vanuatu) will be revitalized in tradition-bearing communities through organizing community gatherings and festivals to strengthen on-going transmission of expert artistic skills. Other measures include establishing regulations concerning the commercial use of sand drawings and providing legal protection, including sand drawing in standard school curricula and establishing a trust fund to encourage income generating activities linked to this art form. Altogether these should help reconcile national cultural policies with the interests of those for whom sand drawings are above all a living and thriving social reality.

Last update: 2007-10-19 18:16:31


Traditional craftsmanship

  • Meetings

Scope and Content

The Woodcrafting Knowledge of the Zafimaniry
© J. Ségur/ZED

“Traditional craftsmanship” seems in many ways to be the most tangible of domains in which intangible heritage is expressed, but the focus of the Convention is not on craft products as such, but rather on the skills and knowledge crucial for their ongoing production. Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus not on preserving craft objects—no matter how beautiful, precious, rare or important they might be—but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others, especially younger members of their own communities.

Traditional craftsmanship is expressed in many forms: clothing and jewellery to protect or adorn the body; costumes and props required for festivals or performing arts; objects used for storage, transport, and shelter; decorative arts and ritual objects; musical instruments and household utensils; toys meant to amuse or educate, and tools vital to subsistence or survival. Many such objects are ephemeral, intended to last only as long as the community festival or family rite for which they are made. Others become keepsakes, handed down as precious heirlooms and used as models for ongoing creativity. The skills and knowledge required for artisanry to continue are sometimes as delicate as a paper votive or sand drawing, but often as robust and resilient as a sturdy basket or thick blanket.

Some Examples

The Indonesian Kris
©Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia

These examples are selected from the 90 Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity proclaimed in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

  • The Indonesian Kris, both weapon and spiritual object, is considered to possess magical powers. A bladesmith, or empu, makes the blade in layers of different iron ores and meteorite nickel. Empus are highly respected artisans with additional knowledge in literature, history and occult sciences. Although active and honoured empus who produce high-quality kris in the traditional way can still be found on many islands, their number is dramatically decreasing, and it is more difficult for them to find people to whom they can transmit their skills.
  • The most visible emblem of the Kihnu Cultural Space (Estonia) is the woollen handicrafts worn by the women of the community. Working in their homes using traditional looms and local wool, the women weave and knit mittens, stockings, skirts and blouses; many of the symbolic forms and colours adorning these striking garments are rooted in ancient legends.
  • Vanuatu Sand Drawings are memory tools to record and transmit rituals, mythological lore and a wealth of oral information about local histories, cosmologies, kinship systems, song cycles, farming techniques, architectural and craft design, and choreographic patterns. A master sand drawer must possess not only a strong knowledge of graphic patterns but also a deep understanding of their significance.
  • Barkcloth Making in Uganda involves some of humankind’s oldest knowledge, a prehistoric technique that predates the invention of weaving. Barkcloth is mainly worn at coronation and healing ceremonies, funerals and cultural gatherings, but is also used for curtains, mosquito screens, bedding and storage. With the introduction of cotton cloth by Arab caravan traders in the nineteenth century, production slowed and barkcloth’s cultural and spiritual functions diminished, until its revival in recent decades.

Challenges to Viability

In a world where goods are increasingly produced thousands of kilometres from where they are consumed, and where industrial efficiency is often valued more than traditional know-how, the skills and knowledge of traditional artisans face many challenges. Mass production, whether on the level of large multinational corporations or local cottage industries, is often able to supply goods needed for daily life at a lower cost than hand production, and often craftspeople cannot adapt readily to that competition. Many craft skills are dependent on particular natural resources that may be increasingly difficult to acquire as climatic and environmental changes or conversion of land to agricultural purposes reduces forest reserves. Craft processes themselves may be environmentally harmful, particularly when they are intensified from individual production to cottage industry.

As social conditions or cultural tastes change, festivals or celebrations that once required elaborate craft production may become simpler or sparser (although in some cases, increasing prosperity allows festivals to be celebrated today with a splendor unimaginable in the past, creating new opportunities for craft producers). Young people who observe the rigours of traditional craftsmanship, and particularly the sometimes-lengthy apprenticeship before one achieves mastery, may choose instead to seek better-paid or less demanding work in factories or service industries. And many craft traditions involve “trade secrets” that should not be taught to outsiders; if family members or community members are not interested in learning it, such knowledge may disappear because sharing it with strangers violates the tradition.

Some Safeguarding Approaches

The goal of safeguarding, here as with other domains of ICH, is to support the continuing transmission of the knowledge and skills associated with traditional artisanry—to help ensure that crafts continue to be practiced within their communities, providing livelihoods to their makers and reflecting creativity and adaptation.

The "Maître d'art" Jean Dominique Fleury, painter on glass, among its apprentices
©Alexis Lecomte, Ministère de la Culture - France

Many craft traditions have age-old systems of instruction and apprenticeship, and one proven safeguarding strategy is to reinforce and strengthen those existing systems by offering financial assistance to student and teacher to make transmission more attractive to both. Strengthening transmission is also the central objective of many “Living Human Treasures” systems, such as the “Maîtres d’Art” system in France that has recognized dozens of exemplary craftspeople in fields such as musical instrument-making, textile arts, decorative arts, and bookbinding.

Another safeguarding measure proven particularly effective for strengthening traditional craftsmanship is to reinforce local, traditional markets for craft products while also developing new markets. With increased urbanization and industrialization, people around the world seek “high touch” experiences to counterbalance all the “high tech” that surrounds them, and whether domestic consumers or international tourists, people are attracted to hand-made objects that embody the accumulated knowledge of craftspeople. One recent effort combining these two strategies is the establishment of a center and workshop for the Cross-crafting tradition of Lithuania in the city of Prienai, in which apprentices learn cross-crafting from masters, producing crosses to meet the orders of local towns and private persons.

In other cases, if craft practices are threatened by the loss of required natural resources, forests may be replanted or gardens established to provide essential craft materials. Without the resources, there is no call for the knowledge of craft techniques; when raw materials are once again available, artisans’ knowledge gains renewed value. Legal measures are sometimes necessary to protect the access rights of communities to gather needed resources, while ensuring environmental protection.

Other legal measures such as IP protections and patent or copyright registrations can help a community to benefit from its traditional motifs and crafts. Sometimes, legal measures intended for other purposes can encourage craft production; for example, a local ban on wasteful plastic bags can stimulate a market for handmade paper bags and containers woven from grass, encouraging the continuity of traditional craft knowledge and skills.

The UNESCO Seal of Excellence for Handicrafts takes a multifaceted approach to stimulating craftsmanship through international visibility, providing market opportunities, establishing standards of excellence, encouraging innovation and offering training and support services.

Last update: 2007-09-07 14:39:11


wonderful job Robot did!!!