Intangible Cultural Heritage

Traditionally, preserving cultural heritage has meant conserving historic buildings, monuments and works of art. But starting in the 1960s, thanks to a growing appreciation of diverse cultures and modes of cultural expression, the preservation of cultural heritage has expanded to encompass so-called “intangible” cultural expressions such as music, language and dance.

The Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, has played an important role in this expansion, not least through its collaborations and cooperation with thousands of educational, cultural and government institutions. Today many institutions and individuals contribute to preserving cultural heritage in all its forms, tangible and intangible alike.

One pioneering direction was forged in 1967, when the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) established heritage preservation programs in collaboration with diverse local communities in and outside the United States. This culminated with the first Smithsonian Folklife Festival on Washington’s National Mall, the grassy public space between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol.

The then-novel approach to heritage preservation highlighted the value of language, storytelling, music, dance, traditional crafts, social practices, ethnosciences, traditional agricultural practices and other cultural expressions from communities across the nation. It included Chinese lion dancers, American Indian sand painters, potters, a Bohemian hammered dulcimer band and storytellers, along with mountain banjo-pickers, a Russian chorus, and blues and gospel singers.

That first free festival drew nearly half a million attendees. Now, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an annual event, attended by more than 1 million people each year, and often features cultures of other nations as well as homegrown ones.

By emphasizing how ordinary citizens practice and preserve their cultural heritage, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival significantly expanded both the understanding of other cultures and the desire to celebrate them. As local communities and lesser-known artisans increasingly were recognized as important mainstays of imagination and creativity, the scope and definition of “valuable” cultural expression worthy of preservation broadened commensurately. A new paradigm in which cultural institutions partner with grass-roots communities inspired similar cultural heritage stewardship practices among other national and international cultural institutions.

In the late 1990s, the concept of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) emerged. It reflected the principles upheld in the nearly four decades of work carried out by the CFCH, together with other U.S. cultural institutions and organizations, including the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center and the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as state folklorists, global scholars, and communities of artists and artisans whose works express their cultural heritage.

ICH now informs both national and international cultural protocols. Earlier efforts had tended to privilege exclusively monuments, sculpture and other material artifacts produced by developed countries and dominant social groups. Official national cultural institutions frequently failed to acknowledge local and small-scale cultural expressions of their own countries’ diverse communities. Recognition that intangible forms of cultural heritage are as important as tangible ones represented a fundamental departure from earlier practices and expanded the realm of cultural expression worthy of preservation.

The preservation of intangible cultural heritage continues to shape national and international cultural discussions, practices and protocols. Diverse voices are heard and more forms of expression are included. Worldwide cultural preservation is becoming more inclusive, democratic and open. U.S. cultural institutions are capable and ready to collaborate with institutions and communities within and beyond our borders to preserve human culture for the enrichment of peoples worldwide.

By James Counts Early and Ryan F. Manion © 2010 Smithsonian Institution, used with permission. James Counts Early is director of cultural heritage policy for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution. Ryan Manion is a former intern in applied ethnomusicology at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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