Singapore hawker centers. The French baguette. Congolese rumba. All of these and more have made headlines in recent years for being added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage lists. But have you ever wondered what exactly the lists are, who curates them, and what benefit there is to being on them? Read on…
What is UNESCO and how does it protect heritage?
UNESCO—or the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization to give its full name—is an agency of the UN comprising around 200 member states. Its roots date back to the post World War II era, and its self-proclaimed mission is to contribute “to peace and security by promoting international cooperation in education, sciences, culture, communication, and information.”
You’re probably familiar with its World Heritage List, a group of 1,000-plus cultural and natural sites across the world that have been earmarked for preservation and protection since the World Heritage Convention’s founding in 1972. The World Heritage List includes well-known spots like the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in Peru. UNESCO just agreed to add 20 new Ukrainian sites to the list. They join recent additions including Europe’s spa towns and Iran’s trans-national railway.
The convention has many goals: to encourage member states to nominate sites for the list and to set up conservation management plans for those sites; to provide technical assistance in their preservation; and to involve the local community in their preservation. UNESCO also helps with public awareness and encourages international cooperation
The convention celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, which saw it proclaim climate change as the single biggest threat to World Heritage Sites and reveal that 52 of the sites were on its List of World Heritage in Danger. (That number is now 55).
What are the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage lists?
UNESCO’s work doesn’t stop with physical things like buildings, coral reefs, national parks, and cities. The organization also works to protect intangible items such as cultures, customs, and traditions. That’s where the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage lists come in.
They’re published by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a group representing 24 member nations across the globe. The group meets annually to decide what should be included. UNESCO’s website records some 676 items (at time of writing) across 140 countries.
The Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists are a collection of three separate lists. An item can be added to either the Register of Good Safekeeping Practices or the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity—or, if it’s in more urgent need of protection, the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
To make that third list, an item finds “its viability at risk” despite efforts by local communities or the country as a whole, and is facing “grave threats as a result of which it cannot be expected to survive without immediate safeguarding.”
What is UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage?
So what exactly is it? UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as “including traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants” and gives these examples:
- Oral traditions
- Performing arts
- Social practices
- Festive events
- Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
- The knowledge and skills to produce tradition crafts
Examples of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
In 2022, items included Chinese tea processes, Korean masked dance dramas, Algerian folk songs, and France’s baguette (around 400 bakeries close a year, apparently).
The urgent safeguarding list, specifically, added:
- the pottery making of Vietnam’s Chăm people
- Ukraine’s culture of borscht cooking
- traditional Ahlat stonework in Türkiye
In 2021, inscriptions included the Durga Puja festival, which takes place in September or October in West Bengal, India, among other locations. In 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture of community dining was added. Both were on the representative list, as opposed to the urgent safekeeping list. (AFAR’s Charlene Fang has a great roundup of the best hawker centers to visit in Singapore.)
What are the benefits of being on the UNESCO list?
UNESCO says that inscription on the list brings attention and visibility to the items, which could be at risk of decontextualization or appropriation otherwise.
Member states can also apply for money from an Intangible Cultural Heritage Fund. The cash can help with preparing inventories of endangered items, or with “programmes, projects, and activities aimed at the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage at the national, subregional, and regional levels.” There’s emergency money available too, for after a natural disaster for example.
Inscription also means member states must provide regular reporting on the status of the item, as well as updates on safeguarding plans and how local communities are involved in that.
What can I do to help preserve endangered customs?
I recently wrote an AFAR Answers page on the topic of how to respectfully engage with cultures on your travels, which has some tips and intel that might help you research future trips. The UK’s Heritage Crafts Association helps protect endangered crafts, and its website has a wealth of information on how you can support the cause. Similarly, the UN’s World Tourism Organization’s Best Tourism Villages list does a great job of celebrating places where cultures and traditions are preserved.
As UNESCO points out, living heritage is under constant threat from a range of factors including environmental changes, demographic shifts, and economic pressures—so the need to protect it is more urgent than ever.