Vocabulary Lesson – Intangible Heritage

9 Mar

Yes, this is a blog about art, some architecture as well, but I think it’s time to break away from that for a bit.  You see, I was given a dirty look by someone this evening for using the words “cultural preservation” and attempting to define what counts as “Intangible Heritage.”  It’s not that I agreed with the right-wing politician he was discussing, the one who had recently given a radio address on why foreigners should try harder to fit in with German “Leitkultur” (which can be roughly translated as “cultural identity”), but the gentleman I was talking to seem convinced that the idea was outdated and had no business in modern society.

Now to be sure, cultural heritage and identity is something that can easily be used by politicians for their own xenophobic gains, but dismissing it entirely is a dangerous path for socity.  These very things – traditional music, theatre, cuisine, festivals, and other signs of local culture – are some of the greatest and most unique accomplishments of humanity.  A short glance at UNESCO’s list of endangered traditions includes the knowledge of buiding watertight Chinese Junks and many local musical styles that have existed for centuries.  These are things that give every new country or city its own atmosphere.  They are also some of the best ways to observe a culture’s ideals and values.

The problem is that many are abandoning their own cultural heritage for a more globalized, modern society.  The truly interesting thing is that in my experience the people who have done the most traveling and/or have lived abroad are often the most attached to their own cultural identity.  It’s a natural reaction.  You realize that try as you might there will always be differences between cultures, and these should be celebrated. Unfortunately in many developing areas of the world attachment to tradition is seen as anti-progress and is ineed often a block to economic gain.

That’s why it’s become popular to talk about “Intangible Heritage.”  We’ve been preserving art, buildings, even nature for years, but only recently have we realized that our traditions need safeguarding as well.  Humans have always been tribal, but the new ways of showing one’s identity are eclipsing the old.  Systematically honoring and protecting our traditions is one of the best ways to relate to our own history and culture.

I suppose this is the time when I should be encouraging everyone to make the effort to participate in their own traditions, and I do believe that effort should be made to integrate them into one’s life, but it goes beyond that.  We all need to make an effort to support local artisans, craftsmen, and artists whenever possible.  Without them and the practice of cultural traditions in our own lives we really would be living in one giant McWorld, and anyone who’s been to an American fast food chain in Paris can tell you that’s genuinely depressing.  But don’t just think of it as something that should be saved for traveling.  The most important thing we can do is to look in the mirror and in our own backyards to see how we can fit traditions into our lives.  I for one made a pancake breakfast for my friends for Shrove Tuesday yesterday.  It’s a small (and delicious) way of keeping in touch with my upbringing in the Episcopal (Anglican) church and beyond that the British heritage that came before that.  I don’t think it makes me anti-American or even an anti-German foreigner living in this country.  It makes me me.  That’s what our traditions do for us, after all.


UNESCO’s video on what Intangible Heritage is and why it’s important to preserve it.

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