Immaterial Heritage

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Karim van Knippenberg
Ghent University, Gent, Belgium;

Hanne Van Gils
Ghent University, Gent, Belgium;

Short definition

In addition to the definition of material cultural heritage, and in response to the criticism on the materiality of heritage, scholars starting to put attention to the immaterial values related to heritage. The term immaterial heritage (or intangible heritage, a term which is used more frequently in academic literature) was originally coined in order to problematize the focus of official heritage management on material things. In other words, there is a distinction between the material aspects of heritage and the immaterial and social aspects of heritage. Although material and immaterial aspects of heritage are related and linked, they represent different things. Immaterial and social aspects can best be defined as practices – such as traditions, festivals, language, and expressions – which are signifiers of a culture and manifestations of social memory.

Key discussions around the term

The concept of cultural heritage has been broadened over the years since objects that were not part of the traditional, chronological and geographical concept of heritage have been given the statute of heritage, and since a more integral approach towards heritage has been adopted more and more (Vecco 2010). Parallel to this extension process, the selection criteria of cultural heritage have also changed: while initially the historic and artistic values were the only parameters, other additional ones have now been added: the cultural value, its value of identity, and the capacity of the object to interact with memory (Vecco 2010, 324).

This development has also made it possible to recognize intangible cultural heritage, which was ignored for a long time (Gruzinski 1993). This acknowledgment of the importance of immateriality can be interpreted as a step in the direction of overcoming a Eurocentric perspective of heritage. Indeed, it must for example be remembered that material cultural heritage is of limited importance in many cultures. The Voodoo temples in Western Africa are for instance rebuilt regularly; these temples, of recent origins, are built with simple materials and regularly moved in the city; they do not have the forms that make them the object of aesthetic valorization (Vecco 2010).

Moreover, the concept of immaterial heritage extends the conceptualization of material heritage as new parameters to define heritage are added. Indeed, non-material aspects of culture – such as language, literature, and cultural practices, that are important aspects for local communities’ identity are now more highlighted (Harrison and Rose 2013). Immaterial heritage is thus recognized within communities, groups, or individuals that create, maintain, and transmit it. Immaterial heritage is about practices, but it is also closely related to the production of both collective and individual memory and performs social work which helps to build community and identity (Harrison 2010). Logan (2007) defines intangible heritage as “heritage that is embodied in people rather than in inanimate objects”. Thus, the concept of immaterial heritage allows us to understand aspects of heritage related to memory or identity, which would not have been captured by a material- or object-oriented heritage approach alone.

But at the same time, the distinction made between material and immaterial aspects of heritage is counterproductive with regard to capturing the hybridity of heritage. Indeed, such a clear separation between the material and immaterial could be seen to strengthen the materiality of heritage. In other words, it does not allow for a blurring of the two distinct groupings (Cleere 2003). Indeed, although material and immaterial aspects can be two distinct aspects for some communities or individuals, the two distinct aspects can also add up, or interact. Fairclough et al. (2008) for example mention an example of representations of heritage objects in books and movies, which form an additional layer of value for people, who for example visit a particular heritage object they know from a movie. Fairclough et al. (2008) therefore argue that there is a rather complex relation between immaterial aspects of heritage, material aspects, and memory in general. In other words, the meaning and value of heritage are produced in the interaction of humans and material heritage objects.

Nevertheless, the division between material and immaterial aspects of heritage is often recognized within national heritage policies, although mostly referred to differently (i.e. movable or cultural, and immovable or built heritage). Although social and immaterial aspects of heritage are mentioned in heritage policy, this doesn’t mean that conservation is also equally dealing with immaterial aspects of heritage. Yet, international conventions, such as the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage have had some impact. They recognize immaterial heritage as “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage”. Based on this convention, countries updated their national policies and their regulations by including intangible heritage, albeit often separate from tangible heritage, and not necessarily also protecting it.

Taking immaterial and social aspects of heritage into account fits within the goal of Open Heritage to not only focus on listed heritage assets but also to incorporate those places that have a symbolic or practical significance for local heritage communities. By doing so the notion of immaterial and social aspects of heritage helps us to connect to local actors whose understanding of heritage can be recognized, in particular by incorporating practices of manifestations of social memory.

Reference list

Cleere, Henry. (2002). The uneasy bedfellows: universality and cultural heritage. In R. Layton, P. Stone & J. Thomas (Eds.), Desctruction and Conservation of Cultural Property. London: Routledge. 

Fairclough, Graham., Harrison, Rodney., Jameson, John., & Schofield, John. (2008). The heritage reader. London: Routledge.

Gruzinski, Serge. (1993). Protection of the intangible cultural heritage: Survey and new prospects.

Harrison, Rodney. (2010). What is heritage? In R. Harrison (Ed.), Understanding the politics of heritage (pp. 5-42). Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Harrison, Rodney. (2013). Intangible heritage and cultural landscapes. In R. Harrison (Ed.), Heritage : critical approaches (pp. 114-140). Milton Park, Abingdon; New York: Routledge.

Logan, William. (2007). Closing Pandora’s Box: Human Rights Conundrums in Cultural Heritage Protection. In H. Silverman & D. F. Ruggles (Eds.), Cultural Heritage and Human Rights (pp. 33-52). New York: Springer New York.

Vecco, Marilena. (2010). A definition of cultural heritage: From the tangible to the intangible. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 11(3), 321-324.