10 European inscriptions added to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list: Protecting Our Collective Crafts

This year, 55 new inscriptions were added – 10 of which were European – bringing the total elements to 730. The intangible heritage list may be less well known than its sibling The World Heritage List, but its inscriptions are no less valuable. Traditional art, dance, food, and craftsmanship are all vital for our culture, and these sessions dedicated to preserving intangible heritage now form a key part of UNESCO’s mission. Whilst many may see heritage in terms of ancient ruins and historic landscapes, this list focuses on supporting and safeguarding the skills and communities who keep traditions alive.

The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage convened earlier this month for its 18th session. The meeting, which took place in Kasane, Republic of Botswana, ran from the 4th – 8th December, marking 20 years since the inauguration of UNESCO’s intangible heritage list.

Reshaping Cultural Heritage

In recent decades, UNESCO has played a pivotal role in reshaping the concept of cultural heritage. Beyond monuments and artifacts, the term now encompasses traditions, oral expressions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, and the knowledge and skills involved in traditional crafts.

European Unity in Action

Whilst some of the elements inscribed are nominated by individual countries – such as the Maltese Village Festa – many countries work together to present shared intangible heritage. This year, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland jointly nominated the practice of Traditional Irrigation, highlighting how these countries share traditional water management systems that work with, rather than against, the natural environment.

Seasonal livestock movement known as Transhumance was successfully nominated by Albania, Andorra, Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, and Spain.

This year also marked recognition for the incredible craftsmanship behind Handmade Glass Production; the knowledge, craft and skills of which were nominated by Czechia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, and Spain. These elements join previous inscriptions such as Lipizzan Horse Breeding, Falconry, and many others that highlight Europe’s shared cultural pasts.

Transhumance, the seasonal droving of livestockAlbania, Andorra, Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, Spain. Transhumance is the traditional, seasonal migration of herders and their livestock between lowland and highland areas, encompassing a rich cultural tapestry of social practices, rituals, and community engagements deeply rooted in environmental knowledge and contributing to cultural identity and rural vitality. (From the UNESCO nomination)  

Hard fought inclusions

Inclusion on the list is hard fought and can take years to be recognised. Those who campaign for inscription often hope that recognition will cement traditions that are otherwise fading, or will encourage communities to embrace shared pasts. The list is not without its critics, however. As has been documented with the World Heritage List, there are concerns that inscription may lead to over-tourism and commercialisation. Striking a balance between raising awareness and commodifying culture remains a challenge. Furthermore, many find that the processes for nomination and selection are not only unclear, but vulnerable to political influences that disregard real culture and heritage.

Whilst Europe has generally seen many elements inscribed in recent years, critics of the list point to uneven representation across the globe, particularly for African and Indigenous communities. 2023 has been a positive year for this, however, with 10 cultural practices from sub-Saharan Africa being inscribed, a record for the convention.

Recognition of Italian Opera Singing Undoubtedly one of the more well known nominations from 2023 is the practice of opera singing in Italy. This iconic style of singing requires enormous skill not just in singing, but also in drama and acting. Furthermore, opera supports and depends on many other professions, such as stage design, tailoring, and makeup. (From the UNESCO nomination)  

The future

20 years on from its founding, the Intangible Cultural Heritage List nevertheless remains a milestone in recognition for humanity’s cultural past. UNESCO appears committed to increasing diversity in the nominations it recognises, although much work is yet to be done. For now, however, many communities across Europe and the world will be celebrating their inscription on the list. In their statement recognising the anniversary, UNESCO’s Director General, Audrey Azoulay emphasised the importance of looking to a broader definition of cultural heritage: “The convention recognizes that heritage is also alive – that it can be sung, written, listened to and touched.”

Next year’s convention will be held in December, chaired and hosted by Paraguay.

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