More than meets the eye

What does cultural heritage mean, exactly?

The 40th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention sparked international debate over the value and nature of World Heritage listing in the 21st century. According to The New York Times, World Heritage has become big business, bringing hordes of tourists to poor countries that can use the jobs and the cash. This can have positive impacts by assisting with the preservation of heritage through significant economic investment, but it can also overwhelm the very sites it is designed to protect, by pandering to the demands of mass tourism at the expense of local communities. World Heritage listing has thus evolved from a technical measure aimed exclusively at preservation, into an acclaimed and globally respected brand.

“The last two decades have seen the reworking of heritage policy and conservation from a ‘first world’ construct into an inclusive post-colonial practice which seeks to integrate tangible and intangible heritage,” adds the voice of Professor Amareswar Galla, keynote speaker at the 2012 OzAsia Festival, and editor of the flagship 40th anniversary publication World Heritage: Benefits Beyond Borders.

Dating from 1972, the World Heritage Convention originally built on the notion of the American national parks system, extending the defence of natural landscapes to monuments, buildings, towns and cultural artifacts. A second treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, was introduced in 2003 to defend and incorporate intangible culture such as folklore, oral traditions, language, music, crafts, knowledge and rituals into the heritage agenda.

The Intangible Cultural Heritage list not only represents inherited traditions from the past, but also contemporary rural and urban practices that reflect and perpetuate the world’s cultural diversity. The point, according to UNESCO guidelines, is not to preserve and protect, which is to freeze something in time, but to safeguard. Traditions can change and evolve as they are passed down through a living heritage that is continually being recreated.

UNESCO’s intangible heritage list has enshrined over 260 such items to date, ranging from a program of ‘cultivating ludodiversity in Flanders, Belgium’, to the ‘watertight-bulkhead technology of Chinese junks’ and the ‘traditional knowledge of the jaguar shamans of Yuruparí, Colombia’. Falconry, the tango, Vanuatu sand drawing and Viennese coffee culture are other examples of living heritage that have made the list, the enigmatic nature of which has made it the subject of much mockery and some serious criticism. (For those not in the know, ludodiversity refers to the wide diversity in games, sports, physical exercises, dances and acrobatics practiced in Flanders, including twenty-three types of shooting games, bowl games, throwing games and ball games).

Claims that intangible heritage is too inscrutable to deal with might, however, be missing the point. According to Professor Galla, new holistic approaches to heritage practice are challenging the binary of nature and culture on which the UNESCO conventions were once based. “Nature is culturally perceived,” he argues. “The understanding of the museum needs to be liberated in order to encompass the idea of a genuinely inclusive cultural centre that facilitates the continuity of living heritage.” In Australia, during the 1980s, Galla facilitated the national affirmative action for the participation of Aboriginal People and Torres Strait islanders in Australian heritage institutions from the position that all heritage is intangible. The intangible is simply represented and illustrated through the tangible.

So in addition to collecting, collating and documenting, museums and heritage sites should be providing the tools and support for living custodians to practice and pass on their knowledge and experience to the next generation. Galla cites the Cobb and Co museum in Toowoomba as a local example of such a community-centred institution. Concerned that so many of the skills and associated knowledge behind the collections were being lost, the museum established a training centre for ‘heritage trades’ which offers training in the trades themselves, as well as in the conservation and maintenance of the collections.

As World Heritage inscription comes under scrutiny, new paradigms for the planning and management of World Heritage sites are also beginning to emerge. These involve the full participation of local communities in determining natural and cultural significance in the first place, and in managing and developing the sites over time. “The aim is to contribute more effectively to community building by resourcing and strengthening local capacity for action,” says Galla.

He points to the example of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, which has been twice listed by UNESCO, in 1994 for its outstanding landscape and aesthetic characteristics and again in 2000 for its scientific and geological values. “However, in the process of inscription the local Cua Van people were neither involved nor consulted, and there was no acknowledgement of their intangible heritage.”

Galla went to work to bring together resources and interest groups to establish the Cua Van Floating Cultural Centre and Museum, which is devoted to the living heritage values of fishing communities who live on the bay. “Prior to the initiative there were proposals to sedentarise the fishing communities on land,” he told The Adelaide Review. “When local communities are able to have their voice heard, and when the institutions break out of their object-centred and place-centred conceptual straightjackets, a more inclusive understanding of the World Heritage area is revealed to both locals and visitors alike.”