Googling for “Visit England” you will quickly find results listing impressive buildings, monuments and archaeological sites, and places of natural beauty. But there is more to heritage than famous architecture and natural beauty.
Architecture can instil a strong sense of nationhood, connecting the past with the present and future of a nation. Buildings and public spaces come to symbolise chapters in a country’s history, witnessing times of joy and suffering alike. They have been there before us and are likely to remain after we have gone. Thus, the spiritual and emotional value of tangible heritage is often significant, deserving special protection and conservation.
But there is more to heritage than famous architecture and natural beauty. Whilst the World Heritage Convention, focusing on tangible heritage, has been widely adopted, intangible heritage receives less attention. But knowledge and skills passed from generation to generation, including arts, traditional crafts and cuisine form an essential part of our heritage – a part of who we are. The UK has not ratified the UNESCO convention on intangible heritage, despite its world-leading cultural vitality in areas like dance music, with venues currently under threat from forces of urban development.
The search result above focusing on tangible heritage does not come as a surprise. The internet allows us to visit places with our eyes before our bodies and therefore tangible heritage might receive more attention and is considered as being of higher value. The experience of something intangible like the smell of a market or the taste of unfamiliar food is lost online.
However, just like tangible heritage, these practices connect the past with the present and future and provide significant emotional value. This becomes particularly evident when groups are being neglected, marginalised and denied equal right to exercise their culture. All too often this leads to division and conflict. Respecting intangible heritage enables us to understand other cultures better than merely visiting their tangible heritage on a holiday. Thus, intangible cultural heritage carries with it a social value that helps us to foster intercultural relationships.
As opposed to physical heritage, intangible heritage is not bound to places, but embedded in individuals and can therefore be shared across cultural boundaries and between places. Just as tangible heritage can be commercialised intangible heritage lends itself to generating economic value as well. The choice of international cuisine in British cities and the success story of curry dishes in particular is a prime example of how intangible cultural heritage from other regions can shape our own identity and generate economic benefits alike.
Other examples include traditional dances and festivals attracting tourists. Chinese New Year Celebrations and the Oktoberfest are now celebrated around the world, effectively an ‘export’ offering enrichment and commercial opportunity.
However, the flexibility of intangible cultural heritage also leads to fragility. Tangible heritage can be preserved by a small group of people or organisations with the required skills set and funding. Intangible customs, however, depend on individuals voluntarily transferring skills and customs to the next generation, often in an informal community or family based setting. But the relevance of practises exercised in the past in today’s world cannot be taken for granted. Thus, rather than protecting the current form of intangible heritage we need to allow for it to adapt to a new context to make it relevant for today’s societies. Intangible heritage is not fixed, it is fluid.
To emphasise the importance and potential of tangible and intangible heritage alike, the RSA has teamed up with the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop an online Heritage Index. It identifies tangible and intangible heritage assets, and will enable each council area to use them more creatively in developing their broader social and economic strategies. The index goes live on 23 September, so watch this space; and let us know how useful it proves to be in highlighting, protecting and taking forward the ‘cultures and memoires’ of the places in which we live.
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