Looking for Faro Blog | What is heritage? Or, what can it be?

Researching the Faro Convention involves all kinds of phone calls, consultations and meetings. These online sessions leave me tired-eyed and saddle sore, but happily I am often rewarded with new discoveries and valuable information.

Kama Sutra
At one of the meetings we not only discussed what heritage actually is but also what it can be. Before we knew where we were, the conversation had hopped from policy and conceptual notions to speculations about rolling a joint and positions in the Kama Sutra. ‘I never thought we’d be talking about topics like this’, someone remarked. Me neither! I am regularly amazed by the extraordinary examples of intangible heritage I come across. How about eating stamppot, traditional Dutch fare of potatoes mashed with veg such as kale or endive? Or the tradition of tonknuppelen, in which the villagers of Noordwijkerhout take it in turns to whack a barrel with a bowling pin till a ball or a knited cat falls out? And last but not least, a group of campers in Wijk aan Zee who have had their campsite designated as intangible heritage in protest at property development plans in the area. ‘Seventy-seven families have been coming to this campsite since 1947’, is their proud claim. Quite an achievement! But does that make it heritage?

Is the concept of cultural heritage in danger of being misused? That’s something I’ve been wondering lately. On Twitter I regularly see tweets about the Dutch festive celebration of Sinterklaas and the fact that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were given intangible heritage status in 2015. There are even tweets from people who propose that smoking and prostitution should be regarded as cultural heritage. Their reasoning? These activities have been around so long that they cannot simply be allowed to vanish. So is ‘having been around a long time’ the decisive factor when it comes to achieving heritage status? Chinese-Indonesian restaurant culture recently became intangible heritage in the Netherlands. To the relief of many, as one ‘Taste of China’ after the other disappeared from Dutch high streets. Is scarcity or the threat of extinction a reason for granting heritage status?

So many questions…
With so many questions buzzing around my brain, I called the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the hope that they might be able to clear things up for me. And guess what? It turned out I’d been barking up the wrong tree all along. I had been thinking too much like an architectural historian. A heritage expert selects the buildings that are given listed status, which means they are protected by law. But with intangible heritage it’s the opposite: the practitioners of a tradition decide for themselves that their tradition counts as heritage. So a tradition registered with the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage doesn’t have special status. A tradition that features on the Centre’s website is not protected by law. In other words, there is no real basis for misusing intangible heritage status. Even though Zwarte Piet is intangible heritage, it doesn’t mean that the tradition is written in stone and that people can’t call for change. My newfound knowledge has given me a whole different take on those generations of campers in Wijk aan Zee. If heritage status can’t give them the protection they were seeking, what can? Read my interview with Sylvia Borg from Aardenburg campsite in Wijk aan Zee and Pieter van Rooij from the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage.

See you next time,