According to UNESCO — the international organization that plays an important role in the construction of cultural heritage —, the concept of ‘intangible heritage’ can be described as “the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities, groups and sometimes individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage. Also called living cultural heritage, it is usually expressed in one of the following forms: oral traditions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.” UNESCO has created the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity to illuminate extraordinary examples of intangible heritage and produce an environment in which cultural diversity can be celebrated and displayed. The list includes, for instance, Belgian beer culture and the manner in which Dutch millers operate their windmills and watermills.
However, academics like Laurajane Smith have noted that “all heritage is intangible” (Smith, 2011) because cultural heritage can only become cultural heritage and maintain its status as cultural heritage when people attribute intangible values and meanings to a particular cultural object or practice. This entails that the intangible and immaterial properties and elements of any type of cultural heritage are essential for its continued existence under the banner of cultural heritage. Despite the fact that Smith’s perspective on intangible heritage is not new, the international community has a history of approaching cultural heritage by focusing on “tangible cultural expressions, the significance of which was to be evaluated on the basis of an objective and standardized perception of their artistic, aesthetic, architectural, visual, scientific, and economic value.” (Lenzerini, 2011) This perspective has produced a situation in which the ways in which ordinary people value, interpret and use their cultural heritage is suppressed, and in which the concepts of ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘intangible heritage’ often appear artificially separated.
New perspectives on the concept of ‘intangible heritage’ propose to use the words ‘living heritage’ instead, because these words “refer immediately to the people practising it” and allow to differentiate between ‘living heritage’ and ‘dead heritage’ — a distinction that is deemed more suitable (van Zanten, 2004).
Lenzerini, F. (2011). Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Living Culture of Peoples. European Journal of International Law, 22(1), 101–120.
Smith, L. (2011). All heritage is intangible: Critical heritage studies and museums. Reinwardt Memorial Lecture.
Zanten, W. van (2004). Constructing New Terminology for Intangible Cultural Heritage. Museum International, 36–44.