Posted on September 4, 2012
What is the role of researchers in relation to Conventions such as the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention of 2003? This question was addressed at a meeting on 3 June, the inaugural forum for researchers interested in the operation and implementation of the Convention, held at the Maison Cultures du Monde in Paris. It was held a day before the General Assembly of States Parties to the Convention, so a few delegations of the States Parties attended the meeting, alongside representatives from the Forum of NGOs accredited under the Convention and some of the Category II Centres working on intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

One of the roles of researchers is of course to provide a critical analysis of how the Convention is being implemented. Many of the speakers at the meeting had themselves been involved in drafting the Convention or assisting in its implementation at various stages. Although many good things have come out of the Convention and its implementation, it was also refreshing to hear some serious commentary and critique about how things were going.

Since the Convention came into force in 2006 there have been many meetings at the international level and much activity at the national level within States Parties. Too much emphasis is sometimes placed on getting elements inscribed on the Lists of the Convention, however, and this will not necessarily achieve the Convention’s aim of safeguarding the ICH with the communities concerned. Several speakers noted the difficulty of protecting the stewardship of communities over their ICH under a convention ratified by and administered at the international level through representatives of States Parties. Researchers and NGOs can play an important role in monitoring, mediating, and offering solutions to this problem.

There is also an urgent need to examine and systematize the large body of guidance provided in the decisions of the Intergovernmental Committee over the last few years, as Rieks Smeets said. This guidance contains a number of important ideas or interpretations of the Convention text, which may need to be reflected in the Operational Directives, and some inconsistencies. Wim van Zanten noted that the quality of video material submitted with nomination files left much to be desired in most cases, and did not assist in raising awareness about the element concerned. Marc Jacobs noted the need for innovative and interdisciplinary research on safeguarding ICH that can provide practical guidance for communities and government agencies.

Researchers thus can play a role in developing better understanding of what is being done, and what could be done in the future to better achieve the aims of the Convention in safeguarding the ICH. From the paper presented by myself and Chiara Bortolotto, it was clear that research in this field is rather fragmented. Quite a bit of research is being done, but it is divided by language and regional boundaries, and by a gulf between critical approaches (that deconstruct heritage) and managerial ones (that focus on managing it). We identified a few key areas of research that could be pursued to better inform (and critique) the implementation of the Convention.

The next interim meeting of the Forum will be held in Japan in January 2013, and the following one in Paris in June 2014, before next General Assembly. Some of the papers from the meeting are available online here. A full report is currently being published by the Japanese International Research Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in Asia and the Pacific Region (IRCI), who co-hosted the meeting. Watch the ICH researchers forum website ( for details.

Harriet Deacon is the UK correspondent for the Archival Platform. She has been involved in research on the Intangible Heritage Convention since 2003. She was also involved in the writing of UNESCO training materials for the implementation of the Convention.