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Annie Hicks on Intangible Cultural Heritage

A friend asked me why a heritage researcher scholar would be involving themselves with social media platform producers in Los Angeles. My friend perceived heritage as ancient, of antiquity and made many references to buildings and monuments when I her asked to describe what heritage is.

Heritage however, is far more diverse than the material or the genetic meaning of heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is rich, it is exciting and yes, some of it is in the past but much of it still lives and has an integral part to play in our everyday lives. There are new expressions of culture emerging that have the potential to become our intangible cultural heritage too. Intangible cultural heritage can form identity, it can create community and it can bond generations.

Intangible cultural heritage is our ‘living heritage’, it is our dance, our music, our food, our crafts, our traditions and our rituals that is played out at celebrations, within families, amongst our friends or indeed displayed to tourists. It is the heritage that you cannot touch or hold but yet, it is deeply embedded in our history, in our people and in our gestures.

The world is growing, communities are displaced through ease of travel, necessity of migration due to war or for economic reasons and intangible cultural heritage, which was traditionally passed on by way of an oral tradition could be at risk. But the emergence of new technologies and the vast numbers of people using social media as a means of communication allows these traditions and customs to continue to be passed on and handed down and also transmitted to huge global audiences.

In 2003, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) drafted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage for its protection and promotion. The UK has yet to ratify the convention and as such, there are no official policies or procedures in place to protect British Intangible Cultural Heritage. Further more, ‘In order to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, we need different measures from the ones used for conserving monuments, sites and natural spaces. For intangible to be kept alive, it must remain relevant to a culture and be regularly practised and learned within communities and between generations.’ (UNESCO, 2016).

Another difference between intangible cultural heritage and the built or natural heritage is that ‘Communities themselves must take part in identifying and defining intangible cultural heritage: they are the ones deciding which practices are part of their cultural heritage.’ (UNESCO, 2016).

Social media allows us to not only be the audience of intangible cultural heritage practices but provides us with the potential to create it and to safeguard it. At the moment, in the UK there are interesting, exciting and fascinating elements of intangible cultural heritage that are being practiced by communities, kept alive by communities and on some level, archived by communities acting outside of official heritage agents such as museums, official archives or historians.

If you think the UK has limited expressions to document or safeguard, think Morris Dancing, our folklore such as Robin Hood, our traditions such as Cheese Rolling, witchcraft, Christmas Carol Singing, Football, Sea Shanties…the list goes on.

On social media there are representations of these heritage artefacts uploaded by the public who are eager to tell their story. But historically, museums and other official heritage organisations concentrate on the tangible aspects of heritage – objects, monuments, buildings – often passing by the fascinating intangible cultural heritage stories that provide context to these objects or buildings or they struggle to convey the story from the perspective of the communities that create the stories.

Social media and digital media (through websites) is a real opportunity for official heritage organisations to understand the stories from the perspectives of those that create them. They can learn from the language the communities use, the narrative, the context and the form.

Understanding how social media platform creators and producers facilitate this has been invaluable. To gain insights into how to make your heritage practice more visible to the social media operators to help promote and broaden the audience has been an essential part of the process of going forward to shape a proposal for a digital and social media strategy for intangible cultural heritage safeguarding and sharing for heritage organisations.

Here is a link that provides more information on intangible cultural heritage: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/doc/src/01851-EN.pdf

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