Traditional craft and Intangible Cultural Heritage

In the UK traditional crafts have tended to fall between the arts and heritage not recognises as one or the other. The arts don’t recognise us because we are not innovative enough and in the UK heritage means buildings and monuments rather than living traditions and skills. As an example of this Sheffield Council has a culture plan which does not mention either steel or cutlery, these things are simply not regarded as “culture” in the UK.

This is a very unusual national position, around the globe 157 different nations have signed the 2003 UNESCO convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage which safeguards living traditions in the same way we safeguard our old buildings. It is important of course not to preserve things in aspic, each generation of traditional craftspeople take the skills and knowledge passed down to us, develop it a little, make it our own and pass it on hopefully in a healthy sate to the next generation. This knowledge is an important part of our culture and should be recognised as such, promoted and supported in the way we promote and support theatre, music, the  arts and in the same way we identify and find new uses for important old buildings that we value.

One of the reasons we in the UK have not engaged with what the rest of the world call Intangible Heritage is because it is difficult. Preserving a building or a steam engine is a doddle by comparison. There is the danger of preserving something and stopping it being the very living changing tradition that we value. There is a danger that as soon as you start studying a traditional practice it becomes self conscious which changes it. But if you leave these things to market forces they can struggle. Left to market forces many of our churches would have been pulled down but with care and thought when something goes into decline new uses can be found. A good example would be the Cornish Gig a fast row boat which was developed in the  days of tall ships. When tall ships came to port they needed a local pilot who knew the local tides and rocks to bring them in, the first pilot out there often got the job so they developed fast row boats to take them out. The tall ships are gone but since the 70s there has been a steady rise in the sport of gig racing with teams all around Cornwall and Scilly Isles competing against each other. It has become an important new tradition which in turn keeps shipwrights and oar makers in business passing on their skills.

The start of the mens from St Agnes

Intangible Heritage includes traditional crafts, folk music and traditions such as bonfire night or the Abbots Bromley horn dance going since 1226. There is a whole raft of intangible Heritage around sports such as football. Last week I went to watch my first live soccer game for 30 years and I was most struck by the spontaneous crowd actions, they chant and sing and swear in unison almost like a shoal of fish turning in the ocean. The tribal feeling was remarkable and adds enormously to the fans lives. When a community looses it’s ICH it struggles desperately, the mining communities had a whole culture built around the pits, if that culture had been recognised and valued it could be safeguarded and handed on with pride even to non mining generations.

Some traditional practices are under increasing pressure from local councils such as the Baccup coconut dancers their plight has even made it to parliament


The Gloucester cheese rollers have been threatened with litigation to the extent that the event is now totally unmanaged, for fear of the organisers being sued. The traditional farm that had supplied the cheese for 25 years were told by police if they continued to do so they could be liable if there was an accident. In the UK we are very good at silly traditions and we enjoy them a lot, there needs to be a balance obviously between safety and the benefits of these traditions. Around the world there are government initiatives to survey their countries traditions, safeguard them and promote them. Have a look at these crazy cheese rollers

Now compare this situation to China. When I was there 2 weeks ago the cultural traditions of the various ethnic groups were celebrated and they are making rapid progress at cataloguing and safeguarding the various aspects of their intangible culture in just the same way that we catalog and safeguard our material culture. Have a look at this page on the UNESCO website where representatives of various countries are interviewd and asked why ICH is important. Mr YANG Zhi Director, International Training Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia is 10th one down and very good.

Whilst in China I also met Ritu Sethi from India. She is passionate about craft and set up the Craft Revival Trust, in  this paper she gives an overview of some of the work going on in India and the way in which traditional craft can be a strong viable part of local culture and the economy.

These are just a few examples of the way in which Intangible Heritage is viewed in other countries, we are lagging so far behind which is surprising when heritage and tourism are recognised as important to the UK economy.

There is a petition that you can sign to encourage the government to sign the 2003 UNESCO convention, the more signatures on this petition the more chance we have of getting recognition for Intangible Heritage in the UK.

One Response to Traditional craft and Intangible Cultural Heritage

  1. Alex December 10, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

    Great article. It’s the ICH that give a strong sense of identity, locality and community. They help link you to a place or landscape and then you’re more likely to help protect or conserve that place from un wanton pressure from outside. It would be great if new localism powers like neighbourhood planning we’re empowered to identify such ICH within communities and help it flourishing into the future. Valuing these traditions is important (not necessarily monetrising them), as their future often depends soley on the dedication of a few, often volunteers. Through valuing such activities we hopefully value the natural environment to a great extent – which many of these traditions of activities ultimately depend or recognise or celebrate.

    PsI live in small Cornish fishing village with three gigs… And coxed the at the 1998 world gig championships in the isle of scilly!