Readings in heritage, February 2015

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (2004). Intangible heritage as metacultural production. Museum International, 56(1-2), 52–65.

This paper outline how, in the past, the term “intangible heritage” was seen as synonymous with “folklore” (now sometimes seen as a discipline tasked with documenting disappearing traditions). A more recent model combines the idea of intangible heritage as culture (like tangible heritage) but also as living – and therefore in need of a sustainable environment for cultural reproduction (similar to the way natural heritage is viewed).

“The task, then, is to sustain the whole system as a living entity and not just to collect ‘intangible artefacts’.“ (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 53).

The paradox, however, is that culture (intrinsically) changes. And all interventions, including the production of a list of masterpieces of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, change the cultural environment .

“….measures intended to preserve, conserve, safeguard and sustain particular cultural practices are caught between freezing the practice and addressing the inherently processual nature of culture.” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 58–59).

Intangible culture is difficult to tie down because it is about performance and event, not about things. Intangibility and evanescence is the condition of all experience, it should not be confused with disappearance (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 60). But because the repertoire of intangible cultural heritage is about embodied knowledge, it is seen as vulnerable – it is linked to people (individuals) and individuals die. This is despite the fact that aboriginal Australian people managed to transmit their culture for many thousands of years without the benefit of written legal “protection” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett  2004, 60). The creation of a UNESCO list of the treasures of masterpieces of intangible cultural heritage is a manifestation of anxiety about the fact that the intangible is difficult to tie down. In order to assuage our anxieties we engage in metacultural production. Thus Kirshenblatt-Gimblett argues that the creation of a list of masterpieces of intangible cultural heritage (the outcome of UNESCO’s early deliberations on intangible heritage) produced a metacultural item (the list) – as opposed to focusing on actions that could encourage cultural reproduction. Other metacultural items listed by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett include festivals, and heritage itself. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett sees heritage as a “mode of cultural production that gives the endangered or outmoded a second life as an exhibition of itself” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004, 56).

“Such cases point to the troubled history of museums and heritage as agents of deculturation integration, as the final resting place for evidence of the success of missionizing and colonizing efforts, among others, which preserve (in the museum) what was wiped out (in the community). Today’s museums and heritage interventions may attempt to reverse course, but there is no way back, only a metacultural way forward” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 61).