Intangible cultural heritage is the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills that people recognize as part of their cultural heritage.
Intangible cultural heritage is living heritage. People pass it on from one generation to the next. It is everywhere in today’s society; it is a source of cultural diversity, gives people a sense of identity and continuity, and contributes to sustainable development.
“Intangible heritage is the cultural equivalent of biodiversity: a range of creative solutions that people have come up with over time about how and where we live together.”— Workshop Intangible Heritage
Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is part of the museum definition since at least 2007, and part of the museum practice for much longer. Museums as diverse as Norway’s Coastal Heritage Museum, the city museum of Rotterdam, the Alpine Museum in Bern, and the Cité Internationale de la Tapisserie is Aubusson preserve, document, research, and present different forms of living heritage for current and future generations. There are similarities between the new participatory method to museums and approaches to ICH.
The formal relationship between ICH and museums is complicated. ICH is not a priority for any of Europe’s national museum associations, for instance, according to NEMO. In the past two years, the European ICH and Museums Project has researched the relationship from various angles. Although the project brought together 75 case studies of ICH practice in museums, the topic continuous to be unknown to many museum professionals.
This is a pity, because:
- As living heritage, ICH makes the connection between a museum’s collections, knowledge, and expertise and an audience’s desire for participatory storytelling and engaging cultural experiences.
- Intangible cultural heritage provides a framework to talk about and work on many topics that are high on the museum agenda, including participation, inclusion and representation, community engagement, and ownership.
- The range of creative solutions that are part of ICH (and indirectly represented in museums collections) and associated practices, link museums to sustainable development.
The one thing I take away from a multi-year deep dive into the topic of living heritage is that to many museums, ICH can offer a more genuine and meaningful route to becoming more community-driven and participatory. Rather than inventing a practice around an object or exhibition to stimulate community involvement, museums can use local living heritage – whether it is a festival, a craft, music or language – to create a lively, engaging connection between communities and the museum.
An added advantage of working with ICH instead of inventing your own participatory practice is that ICH almost always has individuals, groups, or communities that are already engaged. The heritage is already alive, you do not have to make it so.
On its website, the ICH and Museum Project I mentioned brings together a series of articles, videos, and references that help you to take a deep dive into intangible cultural heritage. There are also quite some case studies you can steal from for inspiration.
(If, however, you feel daunted by the prospect of going through UNESCO conventions, bear with me as at the start of 2020 there will both be an introductory book and toolkit (by my hand) that makes the topic accessible to museum professionals.)
Intangible cultural heritage challenges a museum to shift its perspective from the object to human ingenuity more broadly. Although this may change the actual activities of the museum considerably – for instance, from exhibitions to performances, from material to community research – museums will find that intangible cultural heritage is not as alien to their core mission as it may appear at first.