UK is being left behind in the race to save intangible cultural heritage

In 2003 UNESCO created an important convention for safeguarding heritage, 168 of the worlds  198 countries have signed up to the convention but  a few are being left behind including the UK.  The UK used to lead the world in heritage management and our heritage is one of the main reasons tourists visit us so what is going on? UNESCO say “Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions… inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices rituals and festive events, or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”  These things are as important a part of our cultural heritage as our castles and our coastline and like our castles and coastline they could be recognised, nurtured and celebrated yet in the UK living heritage from traditional crafts to folk music, to cheese rolling and bonfire night far from being protected and celebrated are simply not recognised as being part of our heritage.thousands-of-people-ventured-to-coopers-hill-in-gloucestershire-on-bank-holiday-monday-to-watch-the-world-famous-cheese-rolling-competition-136390561095902601-140527104013

Why is the UK one of the few countries in the world to have not signed the intangible heritage convention?

1 Heritage in the UK historically means buildings and monuments, not cultural traditions.

We led the world in Heritage management. Way back in 1877 William Morris and friends created the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings. In 1896 the National Trust was founded to protect buildings and countryside. In 1972 we signed the World Heritage Convention and pushed for places like Stone Henge to be recognised as World Heritage Sites.

In England the government organisation responsible for heritage is now called “Historic England” but it’s official title is still the “Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission” we concentrate all our efforts on buildings monuments and the countryside. In Japan, China, Korea, France and 164 other countries living heritage or “Intangible Cultural Heritage” is recognised as being equally important to the physical heritage

2 It has been argued that the UK has no living heritage

One of the arguments put forward is that because the UK industrialised early that the living heritage of the traditional countryside life was lost. This view however misunderstands Intangible Cultural Heritage which is not frozen in some bygone era but continually evolving. There are huge areas of the South Yorkshire coalfields where people still self identify as being “from a mining community” because there are such strong cultural traditions there. The same could be said for the Stoke potteries and the Sheffield steel and cutlery trade, soccer teams have rich intangible heritage. Industrialisation did not kill culture it changed it.

3 It has been argued that signing the 2003 convention would mean increased bureaucracy

Government ministers and civil servants have claimed to fully support the aims of the 2003 convention. “the government is…supportive of the aims of the convention, and is keen that the rich intangible cultural heritage of the UK should be valued, and where necessary, preserved”

Lip service is one thing however, there has been absolutely no government action of any sort that would help safeguard living heritage in the UK.  Despite asking the question to consecutive governments numerous ministers and their civil servants I have yet to see a straight answer as to why the UK have not signed and are not thinking of signing the 2003 convention.

What would happen if we signed?

1 We would be committed to surveying the state of our intangible heritage.

At the moment it is possible for say the last scissor factory or the last grinder in Sheffield to close down without anyone even knowing that a part of our cultural fabric is about to be lost. This can not happen with buildings because we survey and know which buildings are valuable, rare and at risk and the statutory protection of “listing” important ones. Finding out what we have and which are the serious rarities is the first step. Imagine a world in which you could demolish a medieval cathedral to make way for modern flats, that is where we are at with living heritage. Sheffield council’s “culture plan” does not mention the words Steel or cutlery. How can it be that these things are not seen as an important part of that city’s culture?

2 We would be committed to take safeguarding measures

Having identified at risk practices such as endangered traditional crafts with only a few elderly practitioners steps would be taken to safeguard the knowledge and skills. That means ensuring those skills are passed on to the next generation and money would have to be made available to ensure it happened. Just like we are committed to not allowing our Cathedrals to fall into disrepair.

3 We could propose aspects of our cultural heritage for the international lists

A little like proposing Stone Henge as a world Heritage Site once signed we could propose aspects of British Cultural heritage for the international lists. At the moment for instance Belgium have proposed beer brewing in Belgium be recognised as part of their intangible cultural heritage. The lists include such things as making cowbells in Portugal  , bagpipe culture in Slovakia  , summer solstice fire festivals in the Pyrenees  to traditional violin making in Italy and highlight  particular “at risk” activities in need of urgent safeguarding. The UK is not represented because we have not signed the convention.


Do you think the UK should sign the 2003 intangible heritage convention?

PS if you are reading this in the USA your government are one of the few worldwide not to sign up yet too.

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9 Responses to UK is being left behind in the race to save intangible cultural heritage

  1. Paul Bouchard May 23, 2016 at 12:51 pm #

    Contempt for the lower classes? Class (and race) have always been convenient levers of control. The punditocracy in the US and UK are quick to blame unions for destroying the economic order back in the 70s but it wasn’t as much the case in countries where class divisions were more relaxed.

  2. Jim Anderson May 23, 2016 at 7:21 pm #

    I find Paul’s use of “punditocracy” to very much to the point of the problem. If we are truly in an era of “crowdsourcing” facilitated be technology, then intangible cultural heritage out to be easier to identify and to preserve.

  3. Jess Smith May 23, 2016 at 8:41 pm #

    The Scottish travelling community have a sacred site in Argyllshire called the Tinker’s Heart. We began a campaign to have Historic Scotland schedule the area which consists of an array of over 26 white quartz stones at a road junction. It was the place where Travellers married, took their dead to be buried in the surrounding forests and babies to be blessed. Its significance has been important to Travellers for over 250 years, at least. It is believed to be much older. The Scottish Parliament at first said because Britain has not signed the UNESCO heritage convention, they thought there was nothing they could do. Also the Tinker’s Heart did not meet HS criteria. However a successful petition brought a change of decision by HS and last year on the 18th June they scheduled our little site as a national monument.

  4. Tom Wylie May 25, 2016 at 12:01 am #

    I think you need to expand the above to address ‘value’; the buildings etc have a value (and I don’t just mean fiscal) they provide a sense of past achievement, social insight and the foundations to today’s culture and thought – they provide a tangible, yet in experience usually virtual, link. Draw the same benefits for skills, make (and align) the benefits of ‘past skill’ tangible, for then it is easier to quantify the possible loss and justify the requested funding. If we lose what we once knew where is our foundation of being; we become nothing but ‘freshers of tomorrow’ instead of craftsmen of today. I prefer rock not sand.

  5. John from Kansas May 25, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

    Probably the most important question to ask is What does “save intangible cultural heritage” mean. Does that mean creating a record with photographs, video and interviews? Does it mean literally passing the skill on by acquiring apprentices?

    If the answer is yes to all of these then I would suggest that this be done in the private sector by those who have the commitment, knowledge, expertise and dedication to record this heritage as it should be recorded. Leaving this to bloated bureaucracy is sure to lead to failure.

    With so many professions, crafts and industries it would be more efficient to have multiple people work within their sphere of interest to record these “intangible cultural heritages”.

    The government could then take this information and archive it thereby preserving the heritage with significantly less cost (and bureaucracy). Perhaps this approach would help entice the government to actively participate.

  6. Jon Baily May 26, 2016 at 12:03 pm #

    The photo you have of the cheese rolling in Gloucestershire is a good example of an event that is being threatened. Health & Safety fears has resulted in the event going “underground” rather than being celebrated and promoted as it has been in earlier years.

  7. Janet Carr June 1, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    Very interesting post. So how can those of us involved with ‘intangible heritage’ band together to get some recognition and support before these things are lost?

    • Robin Wood September 4, 2016 at 10:21 am #

      good question

  8. Peter Quelch August 3, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    I must indeed be out of touch. I believe passionately about traditional cultural heritage yet had no idea that UK had not signed this agreement. Another thought – is there any university work researching craft work these days? I see that there was a TV programme about Hamish Henderson recently and his work collecting and promoting Scottish folk culture, though I missed seeing it. Could Robin write a longer article about this subject in Living Woods? It needs leadership. Peter