As an unashamed enthusiast for, and promoter of intangible cultural heritage, the December window in which new entries to the list are made, is of increasing significance. This is the one point in the year when international media coverage, briefly, but consistently, talks about intangible heritage. The rest of the year, these significant cultural contributors tend to be overlooked, dismissed or mocked by those same media outlets, but for this week only, newspapers and broadcasters play their part in spreading the message that these cultural traditions are important, vulnerable and well worth safeguarding.
While this period is important in terms of raising the profile of intangible heritage globally, on a personal level, new entries to the list make for a wonderful learning opportunity. Being introduced to so many examples of distinctive, frequently unique cultural traditions, in such a short space of time, is an overload of opportunities to learn about global societies. In the past I have lost many an hour listening to the music of the Tsuur, trying to replicate the sounds produced by this distinctive, ethereal performance. Today I had the pleasure of exploring a raft of new (to me) traditions.
In many instances, the examples that I’ve been introduced to by the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity are ones that I have some familiarity with. Shrimp fishing on horseback in Oostduinkerke is one such example that I had been aware of, but had largely forgotten about. The listing process provides an international platform for such practices to become well known once more, and through greater knowledge and, we might hope, understanding, the potential increases for these traditions to be safeguarded for future generations, rather than simply fall out of practice and become forgotten. On another horse theme, the Karabakh horse-riding tradition in Azerbaijan is one such entry to the list this year, to be in danger of just such a fate. Potentially described as a nomadic precursor to polo, this sport once held a significant role in identity creation among participatory communities, but, as with so many traditions to be placed on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, a disconnected youth and changing lifestyles has seen this tradition verge on vanishing. That which becomes included on these lists are as equally fascinating as they are vulnerable, and UNESCO should once again be applauded for their ongoing work in this field.
While these inclusions should indeed be celebrated, it is interesting to note that there is currently a campaign gathering momentum regarding the UK’s ratification of the UNESCO convention on intangible cultural heritage. Currently no comparable examples in a British context will ever be included on these lists, due to ongoing reticence, or just simple disregard from British government officials for this form of heritage. Intangible heritage is however alive and, in some instance, doing well in Britain. Formal recognition of British intangible cultural heritage is though long overdue, and if we consider the living traditions of these islands to be of importance, the UK government must be pressured into acting now, before our intangible spectrum finds itself in urgent need of safeguarding, if that is not already the case.