Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Intangible Heritage

Caption: At Thanksgiving every year, my family goes around the table and each person says one reason for being thankful. A couple of years ago, I decided to create a "thankful tree" with my daughter to list our reasons throughout the month. People who come to visit us are asked to add to our tree. I intend to save the trees to give them to my daughter when she is grown.

I have done much thinking about "intangible heritage" lately. As we work to build collections and preserve community memory, intangible heritage is easy to overlook. The foods we prepare, the music we make, the dances we do, and the family stories we tell over and over again are all pieces of heritage that can easily be lost if someone doesn't make an effort to find a way to document them. Cultural heritage professionals benefit from collaborating with individuals who have their culture to lose if their family or larger communities neglect to transfer information from one generation to the next.

UNESCO is currently "inscribing" its 2010 list of cultural practices and expressions of intangible heritage, which outlines cultural elements in represented countries that need immediate attention. The list demonstrates the diversity of intangible heritage and raises awareness about the need for its care and active continuance. According to the organization:
"The term ‘cultural heritage’ has changed content considerably in recent decades, partially owing to the instruments developed by UNESCO. Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions,performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts."

We all can point to examples of intangible heritage that we value. This time of year, especially, it is very easy to think of some: caroling, fruit cake and potato pancake making, parades, present exchanges, tree decorating, and menorah lightings. Even though we value these things, we can quickly lose track of activities that we did not think to document -- things that we may drop from our repertoire for one reason or another.

A couple of years ago, I found a used book of jump rope rhymes for sale and purchased it for my daughter. Regularly, we take the jump rope out to our driveway, open the book, jump and recite the poetry. She loves the silliness of it and the patterns of the recitations. I enjoy remembering the rhymes that I sang as a child and trying to recall the differences between how I said them and how the book recorded them. I know that there are many rhymes in there that I would not have remembered without the book. And while my daughter brings some home from school that she learns from classmates, I know many would have been lost to me if this ingenious author did not write this book and I had not stumbled upon it.

What stories have we lost to time? What practices do we recall from childhood that are no longer done? (For example, carolers generally don't frequent our modern holiday houses though it was once common for them to do so. Today we will pop in the latest Christmas CD or ask Pandora to create a Christmas station for us instead.) What traditions in our family should be written down, photographed, recorded in a video format, or digitized to ensure their survival? How many other people have similar practices locally? Do our personal intangible cultural practices have a relationship to our community? How can cultural heritage professionals help make the family to community connection? How can they help preserve these traditions so they are represented in our collections and passed on? Are there clever cooperative projects that we can initiate to help the process of saving intangible cultural heritage?

Intangible heritage is a fascinating aspect of culture to explore. See my blog post Intangible Memories Preserved for more on this subject. As we enter the holiday season in New England next week, I hope that you contemplate the traditions worth saving and consider the best ways to ensure their longevity.


  1. The tree leaves are a very clever idea. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for commenting Theresa. Have a very happy Thanksgiving