The Heritage of the People – ICH

Recently, a wiki website was launched to inventory the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Scotland.  This is a response to the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage which defined ICH as ‘practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills’ and the objects and cultural spaces associated with these [1].  The convention called for all State Parties to inventory their ICH (Article 12) with a view to implement measures for its safeguarding where necessary.

What is particularly important is that the convention clearly requires states to involve communities, stakeholders and non-governmental organisations in the process [Articles 11b and 15].  We’ve come a long way, at least on an international level, since expert opinion alone decided on what is heritage, and what isn’t.  Perhaps ICH makes it much easier to hand power over to the people.  It is not difficult to understand ICH as living and thus-ever changing.  ICH is heritage in motion, it does not exist without the active participation of the people.

Of course, the same can be and has been argued for physical heritage as well.  At the most obvious level, the meanings which people attach to a building, for example, can be varied, as Deacon [2] points out.  These meanings also change over time as the society to which the building belongs changes.  Examples abound after changes in a political system.  Goulding and Domic [3] looked at how Croatia reinterpreted its historic environment after the war, for example, and found, among other, a cycle of destruction and erection of monuments to accommodate and express the new systems’ views.  As Howard [4] pointed out some things can cease to be heritage altogether – it all depends on the flux and flow of human society.

The UNESCO Convention on ICH not only calls for communities and even individuals to be involved in identifying what the ICH in and of their country is, but to involve them in its management as well.  The convention adopts a safeguarding approach rather than the preservation approach that has governed the designation and management of physical heritage over the past century.  In other words, it is recognised that ICH cannot be frozen in time and it can never be without people.  Once people stop participating in ICH, ICH no longer exists.

Perhaps that has been the greatest challenge of physical heritage: on the surface, it doesn’t seem to need people.  And so those concerned with its ‘protection’ focused their efforts on the conservation of the physical material alone.  Physical heritage became a matter of experts who based its significance on their own specialist assessment.  Where the public was considered at all it was as a group to be educated about the physical attributes and facts relating to the past.  But, as Grimwade and Carter [5] write, this is not enough to keep a site meaningful to society: it ceases to be heritage.

Luckily, national legislation and policies over the past decades have started to aim at greater community and stakeholder involvement in physical heritage as well.  In Scotland, Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland have begun to adopt a more inclusive process of significance assessment to ensure all heritage values associated with a site are captured.  In England, both the National Trust and English Heritage now strive to engage local communities and stakeholders in the management of their sites.

The question remains, however, whether we will ever see a process as democratic as what Scotland have done to identify their ICH.  Anyone can add to the wiki inventory, and the report that led to this initiative clearly indicates the role that communities etc. can play in the subsequent safeguarding of Scotland’s ICH.  This grassroots approach to inventorying ICH raises the hope that its safeguarding will involve everyone concerned also.

PS: I will talk in greater detail about the importance of significance and inclusive significance assessments in interpretation at the National Workshop of the National Association for Interpretation in Las Vegas,  16 – 20 November 2010.


[1] ICH traditions therefore stand on their own and are not synonymous with the intangible heritage values that are attached to physical objects.

[2] Deacon, H. (2004) ‘Intangible Heritage in Conservation Management Planning: The Case of Robben Island.’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 10, (3) 309 – 319, p. 313

[3] Goulding, C., Domic, D. (2009) ‘Heritage, Identity and Ideological Manipulation: The case of Croatia.’  Annals of Tourism Research 36, (1) 85 – 102

[4] Howard, P. (2003) Heritage: Management, Interpretation, Identity. London: Continuum, p. 185

[5] Grimwade, G., Carter, B. (2000) ‘Managing Small Heritage Sites with Interpretation and Community Involvement.’  International Journal of Heritage Studies 6, (1) 33 – 48


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