Cécile Duvelle / UNESCO

Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers

Cécile Duvelle PhotoMany people are familiar with UNESCO’s designation of physical sites around the world as places of “world heritage,” locales such as the Pyramids of Egypt and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America, agreed to be of inspiration and value to humanity. What is perhaps less well known is that in 2003 UNESCO began recognizing items of intangible cultural heritage. In 1999, Cécile Duvelle, 52, witnessed the dawn of the movement to elaborate the international Convention to safeguard those practices; she has headed up that section for UNESCO since 2008. Her journey has included an encounter with Pygmies in Central Africa, meetings with high government officials in countries around the world, and seeing the soothing effect of a Papua New Guinea lullaby sung in her Parisian living room. Our conversation touches on areas ranging from fishing rites of West Africa, to the Vietnamese art form of Ca Tru, and the politics of agreeing on items of cultural identity. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Cecile.


Meg: What constitutes an item of “intangible cultural heritage”?

UNESCO logoCecile: Intangible cultural heritage is defined by UNESCO as the practices that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. ICH is transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity. ICH is therefore traditional, contemporary and living all at the same time. It is something passed on from the past but is constantly recreated and presently living, imbued with socio-cultural meaning to a community. It is not necessarily beautiful, original, or exceptional but it is always meaningful.

A given cultural expression–for instance, a summer festival–is not necessarily intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage can only be heritage when it is recognized as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it. Without their recognition, nobody else can decide for them that a given expression or practice is their heritage and has a meaning for them.

Five domains, although not exclusive, can be identified as areas of intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions and expressions, including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; traditional craftsmanship.

Meg: What is UNESCO’s role in this area and how did it come about?

Cecile: Founded in 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the only UN specialized agency with the mandate in culture. UNESCO functions as a laboratory of ideas, setting standards to forge universal agreements on emerging issues.

UNESCO works to protect humanity’s heritage. Its constitution affirms the will of all Member States to ‘develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.’

An early landmark action was the 1959 international campaign to rescue the Nubian monuments and sites in Egypt at risk of flooding from the Aswan High Dam project. This provided an inspiration the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which deals with monuments, groups of buildings and sites, and so is strongly linked to tangible heritage.

Aswan NubiaThrough decolonization and increasing globalization, many people and countries began reflecting on their cultural identities, and intangible cultural heritage was identified as an essential source of community identities. Between 1999 and 2003, UNESCO organized a number of expert and intergovernmental meetings on the feasibility of creating a new convention, one of which was held in Washington in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institute. Heated debates took place about the approaches best suited to safeguarding this type of heritage, and consensus was finally attained in 2003 when UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A committee, elected by the General Assembly of States Parties to the Convention, carries the principal responsibility of inscribing elements of intangible cultural heritage to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Nominations for inscription are submitted by States Parties to the Convention, and the ICH element being nominated must satisfy specific criteria. In 2009, twelve practices were added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, ranging from the Rite of the Kalyady in Belarus to traditional music of the Tsuur in Mongolia.

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