Intangible Heritage as Theme Park?

Intangible Cultural Heritage Square?  Cruises Avenue?

I thought the whole idea of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was to offer encouragement to community expression through belief, performance, and crafts that are rapidly disappearing in our globalizing, mass-producing world.

It wasn’t just to collect and display colorful performances and souvenirs in a 21st century carnival.  Sure the Smithsonian Folklife Festival has brought together artists and craftsmen from all over the world every summer since 1967 on the United States’ national equivalent of a town green.  It’s free, always changing, and tied closely to the season.  

But an amusement park for Intangible Cultural Heritage, hoping to receive 8 million paying customers along its carefully planned walkways and performance areas?  Sounds like a bad case of the very same kind of mass-produced cultural packaging that the ICH Convention was meant to combat.

But then no one ever accused the Peoples’ Republic either of thinking small or allowing local community cultural expression to go unsupervised for too long…

World Bank President Robert Zoellick poses with colorful costumed minority culture person as many of the 8 million annual visitors to the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Park in Chengdu will undoubtedly do.

From The Peoples Daily Online – April 19, 2011

China’s first heritage exposition park to open in May

China’s first International Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Park is expected to open at the end of May in Chengdu, according to a press conference at the Third China Chengdu International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival on April 18.

The festival will last from May 29 to June 11 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.

The forthcoming International Intangible Cultural Heritage Exposition Park covers an area of more than 1.1 million square meters and will feature areas such as the Intangible Cultural Heritage Square, Cruises Avenue, the Exhibition Center, the Performance Center and the museum.

It will also combine intangible cultural heritage touring performances, entertainment, experience and consumption. After the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival is finished, the performances and exhibitions of intangible cultural heritage will become a normal part of the park.

After the construction of the park is completed, it will host the International Intangible Cultural Heritage Festival every two years and will also become a protection base for China’s intangible cultural heritage. It is expected that the park will receive more than 8 million visitors each year.

And what about Ravioli?

There is a point where the UNESCO concept of Intangible Cultural Heritage can get a bit ridiculous– moving from protection of traditions to market branding, and ultimately a cultural competition between nations over who can get more items included on the UNESCO list.  That’s what happened to the World Heritage Convention with its yearly beauty contest and winners and losers to be inscribed on the World Heritage list.

But now we have moved on to the Intangible.  The Convention itself was visionary in its emphasis of dynamic process over fossilized product (asserting that Intangible Cultural Heritage “transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity”).  But now it looks like the old ideas of unchanging cultural “icons” and static objects have shouldered aside the process of people making, changing, transforming, adopting, borrowing, and lending that lies at the heart of cultural creativity.

So thanks to yet another failure of UNESCO to go beyond slogans and good intentions, let’s sit back and watch the spectacle of cultural stereotypes being packaged, branded, and declared “authentic” by the experts– while little or nothing is done to protect the distinctive ways of life that created– and still continues to create new forms of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

From The Guardian  27 March 2011:

Italy seeks Unesco protection for Neapolitan pizza

Dish voted by Italians as one that helps sum up nation could be placed on cultural heritage list

Tom Kington in Rome

Neapolitan pizza

Neapolitan pizza could be added to Unesco's cultural heritage list. Photograph: Ciro Fusco/EPA

On a roll after securing Unesco status for the Mediterranean diet, Italy is mulling over an attempt to place the Neapolitan pizza in the pantheon of cultural icons drawn up by the United Nations.

After years of lobbying, Unesco added the Mediterranean diet to its “intangible” cultural heritage list – which recognises festivals, music and crafts alongside its better-known ranking of temples and castles – last year.

Now Italy has put together a shortlist of candidates for consideration in 2011, including pizza from Naples, Sienna’s Palio horse race, violin-making in Cremona, Viareggio’s extravagant carnival procession and ancient festivals in towns such as Nola and Viterbo, where locals carry huge statues on their shoulders and totter round tiny streets.

Also in the running are the small grapevines planted in depressions in the volcanic soil on the island of Pantelleria, where they are sheltered from the fierce sea wind and produce the nectar-like Passito dessert wine.

With only two candidates set to make the final list Italy sends to Unesco for consideration, Corriere della Sera claimed the smart money was on pizza and Cremona’s violin makers, who are fighting off Chinese competition four centuries after Antonio Stradivari opened his workshop there.

But the headlines in Italy have focused on pizza after it was this year voted by Italians as one of the dishes which best sums up their nation. It was narrowly outvoted by pasta with tomato sauce, but beat bruschetta with olive oil into a distant third.

The Unesco shortlist specifies pizza from Naples, where the dish was born in the 1700s, and where a pie topped with mozzarella, tomato and basil leaves – recreating the red, white and green of the Italian flag – was presented to Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889 and named after her.

Naples’ pizzaioli, the skilled spinners of pizza dough, still insist those three ingredients are all that is required for a perfect pizza and opt for a softer, deeper crust than the thinner, crispier version favoured by Romans.

“A good pizzaiolo leaves the dough to rise for up to 24 hours before baking it in a wood-fired oven to ensure a light, digestible pizza,” the food writer Davide Paolini said.

As the dish edges towards Unesco status, the Italian farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti warned the UN that protection was urgently required.

“Consumers don’t know this, but at least half of all pizzas contain imported ingredients,” it said in a statement, adding that Italians were unwittingly tucking in to Margheritas made with Chinese tomatoes, Tunisian and Spanish olive oil “and even seed oil instead of Italian extra virgin”.

Conserve THIS part of Egyptian heritage from destruction too!

For all the outcry and self-righteousness over the vandalism in the Egyptian Museum and its antiquities, there is another part of the cultural identity of its people that is no less significant– and far more entwined in the daily lives or memories of its many peoples and communities.

In 2008, the vanishing art, musical instruments, and storytellers if the al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and its careful documentation provided a way to conserve an element of culture that– unlike the distant golden excesses of the megalomaniac pharaohs– represented a form of cultural creativity no less endangered than buried temples and tombs.

I would direct you to CULNAT, the newer Egyptian organization for inventorying the full range of Egypt’s tangible and intangible heritage– from prehistory to the present, but its webpage about folklore ( has gone silent, a victim of the Mubarak government’s effort to “protect” the nation from thugs and troublemakers. Maybe you will read this and be able to click on it after he is gone.

And there are countless other expressions of Egyptian culture that are no less fragile than the carved figures and jewelry in the Cairo Museum– like his one, from the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site:

Enhancing Women’s Role as Custodians and Artisans of Egyptian Handicrafts — For over centuries, women have used their innovative and artistic talents to create artefacts passing them from mother to daughter. The “Tally” embroidery, famous in Upper Egypt, and the cross-stitches embroidery of both Siwa and Sinai are unique forms of art dating back to the 19th century. This heritage is under threat because of the permeation of advanced and easier technologies, and a lack of market awareness.

In response to the threat of industrial standardization, the Egyptian National Council for Women (NCW) has taken initiatives with UNESCO to safeguard Egyptian intangible heritage manifested in the domains of traditional craftsmanship, oral traditions and expressions, proverbs and performing arts. This project included documentation in combination with the collection of all forms and patterns of the Tally. It also aimed at training young women artists, craftsmen, documentalists and teachers in recording and documenting the work and in accessing and retrieving historical artistic records. Furthermore, small-scale enterprises were developed to create gainful employment to women living in underserved regions and villages.

*   *   *

There are different ways to preserve a country’s memory and creativity than selecting a certain Golden Age and using it as the metaphor and embodiment of an essentialized civilization and authoritarian regime.  Certainly the material remains of Ancient Egypt are fascinating and valuable.  But they, like the fabulously wealthy and well-connected families of the Cairo elite are not the only ones who deserve dignity, respect, and cries of outrage from the academy and from museum professionals when they are damaged or destroyed.

Collective Memories

Interesting and worthwhile!  Better than biblical archaeological chimeras. But should the Kibbutz be commemorated via UNESCO as tangible heritage in need of physical conservation or intangible heritage in urgent need of social safeguarding?

Farming the kibbutz land. Photo Credit: Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem

from Haaretz December 23, 2010

Israel to push UNESCO to declare the kibbutz a world heritage site

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

By Noam Dvir

The Israel National Commission for UNESCO is set to promote the kibbutz and its heritage as a World Heritage Site, Haaretz has learned.

The initiative, which will focus on the unique social, cultural and architectural aspects of the kibbutz, is being promoted by a group of Israeli scholars led by architects Yuval Yaski, Shmuel Groag and Galia Bar-Or, of the architecture department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Yaski and Bar-Or, who is also the director of the Kibbutz Ein Harod Art Museum, recently curated the exhibition “Kibbutz – Architecture Without Precedent” at the International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, inscribes sites as World Heritage if it deems them uniquely important to human culture. The inscription has special significance in terms of image for the country in which the site is located, as well as economic importance; the chosen site may also be granted special funding by the World Heritage Fund.

The inscription process involves two stages. Each of the member countries in the United Nations can prepare a list of tentative sites for inscription, and during the annual meeting of UNESCO they may be put to a vote. The current initiative seeks to include the beginnings of the kibbutz or a group of kibbutzim on Israel’s tentative list and to then promote inscription through international institutions.

Only one kibbutz, Israel’s first – Degania – is now included in the group. However, Yaski said they will not be inscribing only one kibbutz, such as Degania or Ein Harod, “because each of them represents a different phase in the development of the kibbutz. We think we may need to promote a group of kibbutzim, each of which expresses the physical and historical importance, or a group of kibbutzim in a particular geographic region, like the Jezreel Valley or the Menashe plateau,” Yaski said.

Either way, Yaski said they will not be seeking recognition of all 274 kibbutzim.

He added that inscription is important particularly in light of the significant changes made to the kibbutzim in recent years, including the abandonment of public buildings.

“I believe the move will increase the importance of the kibbutz, both among decision makers as well as among members of the movement,” Yaski said…

For the full article, click here.

Fake Cuisines @ UNESCO

Well I see it didn’t take long for the heritage geniuses on the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention to go down the same sorry national(ist)-marketing-and-promotion trail that the World Heritage List has already blazed.  There is so much that is new and innovative in the ICH convention– so much that stresses evolving ideas and practices over fossilized “specimens”– that it is a shame that so many policy makers and decision makers have such a hard time distinguishing patriotism from heritage, and heritage from economic promotion that is artificially themed.

At the recent 5th meeting of the Committee in Nairobi, fifty-one intangible traditions from around the world were recognized,protected, or honored, but two in particular stand out as laughable attempts at EU puffery:

The gastronomic meal of the French besides being insanely homogenized, detached from class and region, and frozen in a seemingly timeless, homogenized national identity, this ICH “element” makes a mockery of any idea of cultural authenticity .  Read the description for yourself but note: “The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.” Um.  What about poor people, fully French, who did not or could not afford all the courses.  Was the Gastronomic Meal in Lille even remotely similar to the Gastronomic Meal in Marseille?  Or what about the couscous of St. Denis?  Is that meal (and its eaters) somehow not French?  This is Intangible Heritage that teaches homogenization and disregards local contexts– more or less exactly the opposite of what the Convention seems to intend.

The Mediterranean Diet description reads like a restaurant advert or the promotion of a faddish weight-loss plan: “The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community. However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming” I mean, come on!  Wine or infusions?  There are many more unlump-togetherable customs here, making its sponsors Spain, Greece, Italy, and Morocco, ignore the distinctive variations that they do not share.  Is this highly generalized cluster of food habits really a single tradition? And are the countless Greek and Italian restaurants of the Western Hemisphere, Northern Europe, Asia and Australia– with their Mediterranean wall murals and faux-classical statuary part of this intangible heritage too?

Mama's Pizza, St. Paul, Minnesota USA. Authentic Intangible Heritage or not?

For all it has done to promote culture and heritage worldwide, UNESCO is in danger of packaging as “heritage” almost anything its most powerful states-parties call for– and emptying the concept of “Authenticity” of almost any meaning at all…

Does China Make Ramadan Any Less Real?

Ramadan Lamps. Photo by Al Tompkins at


It’s a paradox of our time that even as intangible traditions, religious ritual, and ethnic identification become more vivid– as statements of resistance to global cultural homogenization– the material objects with which those identities are expressed can be made almost anywhere in the world.    

Does that fact make the counter-identities part of globalization?  Or is globalization an unwitting facilitator of ever more rigid national and ethnic identities?    

Thanks to Nigel Hetherington in Cairo for pointing out the following news story:  

from BBC News 20 August 2010   

Egypt’s lantern-makers threatened by imports from China

By Yolande Knell  

Brightly-coloured lanterns are strung across Egyptian streets and lighting up homes and offices as part of celebrations for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  

The lantern – or fanoos – is an enduring symbol of the festivities and dates back more than 800 years.  


But in recent years, cheap, plastic lanterns and lantern-themed toys imported from China have become more popular with Egyptian children.  

Most run on batteries. Some move or light up and play tinny musical tunes.  

“Everything is from China,” says Um Duwai, who sells the modern lanterns. She grins as she points out this year’s best-sellers.  

“There is one shaped like a mosque with lights and these ones which look like Hassan Shehata [the Egyptian football coach] and [the football player] Abu Treika. He is most popular.”  

“Our bride doll is also beautiful,” she adds. “And we have Inspector Columbo from the TV. We were asking for it this year. Every year the Chinese make something new.”  


While the Chinese goods are fun, they have many critics who fear they could lead to the demise of a long-cherished, local tradition.  

“The traditional lanterns are threatened by Chinese lanterns,” says journalist Ahmed el-Dereiny who has studied the history.  

*   *   * 

For complete story, with the energetic reaction of local Cairene lantern makers, click here.

But I Thought Cultural Plagiarism was Actually Good for the World…

You have to see this website:

We are not talking about physical return of artifacts or conservation of sites.  We are talking about exclusive national copyright here. 

So please tell me:  Who owns English Muffins, Turkish Coffee, Danish Pastry, and French Fries?

See also posts of July 17, March 1, and February 24

Who Owns the Shadows?

Too bad that we have never learned to separate “heritage” from “patriotism.”  Too bad that UNESCO member-states need to stick flags on every expression of cultural creativity.  No heritage is ever an inseparable part of any particular national culture– and none is ever completely unmixed.

From the Beirut Daily Star July 17, 2010

Greece claims Turkey’s intangible ‘Karagz’ as its own ‘Karagiozis’

ATHENS: Greece will press its claim to a shadow puppet theater that UNESCO has deemed to be part of Turkey’s cultural heritage, the Foreign Ministry in Athens said on Wednesday.

The puppet theater features Karagz (“black-eyed” in Turkish), a hunchbacked trickster who tries to make a living by hoodwinking Turkish officials and generally avoids all manner of honest work.

The setting is loosely placed during the Ottoman rule of Greece, from the mid-15th to the early 19th century. The Greek version of the puppet theater features Karagiozis (Greek for Karagz).

Infused with a cast of Ottoman-era social clichés – including a Turkish enforcer, a Zante dandy, a Jew and a rough-hewn Greek shepherd – it was a popular form of folk entertainment in Greece until a few decades ago.

“The UNESCO convention on intangible cultural heritage enables neighboring countries to also access the same commodity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras told a news briefing. “Greece has tabled a statement that the same practice exists in our country and a discussion … regarding this issue will take place in Nairobi in October.”

He added that the Karagiozis shadow theater is an “inseparable” part of Greek culture.

UNESCO last year placed Karagz on its list of intangible cultural elements, associating it with Turkey where the character was originally born.

In Greece, however, the character remains a powerful icon of resistance to authority even though Karagiozis performances are now only practiced by a few enthusiasts. Karagiozis is also a common byword for “fool” in Greek.

The origins of Turkish Karagz theater and its hide-crafted puppets are lost to history, though it is assumed that it was introduced to Turkey from Egypt.

Shadow theater is believed to have first surfaced in India over 2,000 years ago.

AFP, with The Daily Star

But Who Owns the Fizz?

Bolivian President Evo Morales holds a coca leaf while addressing the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York 19 September 2006. (Photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)



It’s the Real Thing

Bolivia’s Coca Colla

By Nicholas Kozloff

Move over Coca-Cola: here comes Bolivia. 

The Andean nation’s indigenous people have long resented the U.S. beverage company for usurping the name of their sacred coca leaf.  Now, they are aiming to take back their heritage.  Recently, the government of Evo Morales announced that it would support a plan to produce a coca-based soft drink which would rival its fizzy American counterpart.  

It’s still unclear whether the new drink will be promoted by a private company, a state enterprise, or some type of joint venture between the two. 

The new beverage will be called Coca Colla, in reference to age old history: in Bolivia, Quechua, Aymara and other indigenous peoples descended from the Incas are known as collas. 

In a move that will undoubtedly exasperate Coke, Bolivian officials say Coca Colla will feature a black swoosh and red label similar to the classic Coca-Cola insignia.  Coca Colla reportedly has a black color, just like normal Coke, and could be sold on the market as early as April.  

“Coca Cola robbed from us the name of our coca leaf and moreover has cornered the market all over the world,” says Julio Salazar, Secretary General of the Bolivian Coca Growers’ Federation and Senator from Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism Party (known by its Spanish acronym MAS).  “It is high time that the true owners of this natural resource benefit by industrializing our coca,” he added. 

Bolivians would like to overturn the negative stigma attached to coca leaf.  Morales, an Aymara Indian, says that coca in its natural state does not harm human health, and that scientific research has demonstrated the plant to be “healthy.” When drug smugglers change coca into cocaine, Morales adds, they change the plant’s chemical composition. 

While the Bolivian president condemns such practices, he also touts the commercial uses of coca leaf.  Bolivia’s new constitution, drafted by the ruling MAS party, recognizes coca as Bolivia’s “cultural heritage, a natural and renewable resource of biodiversity in Bolivia and a factor of social cohesion” and adds that coca leaf is not a narcotic in its natural state… 

For Kozloff’s full article and info on his new book No Rain in the Amazon, click here.