Brown Bag 25th January 2012

Marilena Alivizatou, from UCL, on Intangible Heritage
In this enjoyable Brown Bag, Marilena gave a comprehensive
introduction to the history – and the cultural politics - of intangible
heritage, before looking at how a number of museums around the world collect,
display and interpret intangible heritage. She could easily have filled a two-hour
slot with her fascinating international examples, but the snapshots she
presented offered a thought-provoking glimpse into different approaches to
She began with a potted history of the recognition of the importance
of intangible heritage by the international cultural community, emphasising
UNESCO’s key role in raising the profile of intangible heritage, through its
programmes of listing. Marilena worked at UNESCO for a year and her insider’s
perspective was interesting. She argued that UNESCO’s work was informed by a ‘preservation
ethos’, which had its routes in colonialism, with a dominant nineteenth-century
idea that ‘native’ culture was disappearing and needed to be preserved with
urgency, before it was lost. She suggested that this starting point gave rise
to a conceptual approach to heritage, which valued the supposedly authentic and
unchanging and wanted to preserve it from contamination by outside influences: one
political impetus for the preservation of intangible heritage, for example,
came from South American governments in the 1970s who were concerned about the
appropriation - or exploitation - of traditional music by Western popular
The first unsuccessful attempt by UNESCO to establish an instrument
to protect intangible heritage came in 1989, but there was real progress in
1993 when an intangible heritage section was established, and the terminology of ‘Intangible
Heritage’ was adopted, replacing the previous terminology of ‘folklore’, which had
perhaps given an impression of somewhat marginal cultural significance. A series of initiatives followed, leading to
the signing in 2003 of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible
Heritage. The Convention aims to give communities a prominent role in
identifying practices that should be preserved, although Marilena suggested that
in practice it tended to operate in more of a ‘top down’ manner, with
governments promoting aspects of culture that they perceive as significant.
Parties to the Convention are committed to safeguarding these practices and to
compiling inventories of them, and more than 200 cultural expressions are
currently on the list.
Marilena commented that the Convention had been shaped by
UNESCO’s over-riding preservation ethos and speculated about the effect of
this. Do people become prisoners of their heritage, frozen in a cultural form
perceived as ideal in some way, but shut off from innovation? She gave an
example of a community in Peru who preserve a traditional way of life, with no
electronic communications, for instance, implicitly questioning who benefitted
from this: the people themselves, or the tourists who visit them? Marilena
suggested that the Marxist notion of creative destruction might offer an
alternative approach to understanding intangible heritage, enabling us to
consider the heritage of change and impermanence. She argued that cultural
preservation by governments and elites can be artificial, restricting the
freedom of choice of individuals and communities. She illustrated this with
reference to the wearing of the traditional Goh costume in Bhutan: some people
prefer to wear warmer, synthetic alternatives in cold weather, but wear the Goh
on top to maintain the tradition.
Marilena argued that synthesis is a key element of culture,
the bringing together of different elements in a dynamic process of change and
adaptation, but that the UNESCO approach to intangible heritage fails to
encompass this aspect. Can museums do better, engaging with change and
transformation in cultural heritage?
Marilena gave examples from a group of museums trying to
engage in new ways with communities, and acting as more than just a treasure
house. The museums in her study were all adopting what might be seen as a
post-colonial model for the museum, attempting to establish themselves as ‘contact
zones’, to use James Clifford’s description.
Marilena first explored practice at the National Museum of
the American Indian in Washington, which adopted the ‘appropriate museology’
approach advocated by Christina Kreps, for example by respecting the beliefs of
source communities in how objects are displayed and stored. The museum acts as
custodian, but sees ownership as continuing to rest with the tribes who are the
source communities. This ethos is also expressed in the representational
strategies in the exhibitions, which aim to be multi-vocal, resisting the
single authoritative voice of the traditional museum display. New technology
allows individual stories to come to the fore.
The approach at Te Papa in Wellington is similar, in that it
respects the Maori notion of Taonga, that is, seeing objects as ancestors and
living treasures. Marilena looked at one particular instance of this in the
museum’s practice, when the museum wanted to build a house for performance. The
model adopted for the house recast the museum’s approach authenticity by
accepting community ideas about how the house should be built over academic
ideas about the tradition of such buildings.
While NMAI and Te Papa are relatively well known and often
discussed in the UK, I hadn’t previously come across Marilena’s third example,
the museum of Vanuatu. When this island group gained independence in 1980, the
revival of custom was an important aspect of nation building. The museum has
emphasised this in its practice, concentrating on recording intangible
heritage, rather than collecting material culture. Marilena described a project
to train local fieldworkers in ethnographic techniques to enable them to record
traditions and the museum attempts to engage with these in a creative way,
which is open to development and reinterpretation.
By now, we were running out of time in the appointed lunch
hour slot – though her audience were keen to hear more - and Marilena gave only
brief examples from the last two museums in her study, the Horniman in London
and the Musée
du Quai Branly in Paris. She ended with a summary of the characteristics of a
people-centred museology, which might offer a model for museums wishing to
engage with intangible heritage, and which draws on the best aspects of the
work of the museums in her study. It would involve: working with communities,
empowering and respecting the voices of different groups, rethinking the meaning
of collections, using new media to represent intangible heritage and allowing
space for the performance of intangible heritage. Most crucially, it requires
an intellectual approach which emphasises cultural revival, impermanence and
renewal rather than archival documentation. This is clearly a challenge to much
museum practice if taken seriously – but a fascinating one.


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