Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

eople, Places and Culture Workshop, Harbour Grace, Newfoundland © HeritageNL

A Practical Documentation Approach for the Safeguarding of ICH

The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Intangible Cultural Strategy has four broad goals: documentation, that work of inventorying ICH; celebration, where we honor our tradition-bearers; transmission, where we ensure that skills are passed from person to person and community to community; and finally cultural industry, where we can build sustainable communities using Intangible Cultural Heritage as a tool.

The typical methodology used by Heritage NL is fairly simple: a topic or community is identified, background research is conducted, and then fieldwork is undertaken to document living knowledge. Then, some sort of event or community engagement project is organized, utilizing the information collected, which allows for public participation in and/or celebration of the tradition under study. The entire process is documented, and then made accessible in ways the community decides is appropriate.

Identifying and documenting ICH is an important part of maintaining tradition. Often, ICH practices and knowledge have not been documented in print or digital collections, and documenting that knowledge is one way to assist with its survival and transmission. To ensure the continued transmission of ICH, it is extremely important for the practitioners themselves to be involved, and to be aware of and to identify endangered elements of ICH for study. Where possible, community members should be trained in the inventorying and documentary process, giving them the ability to document their own ICH.

Documentation is important in that it forms a knowledge base for future work. It is the first step in the process of safeguarding this heritage.  Safeguarding measures must be developed with a deep understanding of the element under threat, or else they will not be effective. In other words, documentation should be undertaken with the understanding that the records produced are to be used in some way to strengthen the tradition, and are not just an observation of fading practices.

Heritage NL regularly runs workshops on ethnographic collection techniques and cultural documentation, and also regularly works with Memorial University’s Department of Folklore in training graduate students in the work of cultural documentation, proper documentation procedures, and issues surrounding copyright and ownership.

In our work, we are interested in the processes behind the transmission of skills and knowledge, not just historical data. The model we use for training cultural workers reflects this, and is based on a series of six themes around which we develop questions while doing ethnographic interviews.

1 . In The Beginning

Here, the researcher asks questions about where and when the interviewee started their involvement in the tradition. This helps ease the interviewee into deeper questions. Questions might include, “How did you start?” or “Who did you learn this tradition from?” or “What was your introduction to this this tradition?” This serves two basic functions; it provides good contextual and historical information at the start of the interview, while also easing or relaxing the tradition bearer into the interview. After the person is comfortable in the interview, the researcher can start to ask more detailed or personal questions.

2. Learning, Past and Future

This topic is intended to uncover information about the learning process in a bit more detail and, in particular, to help you understand the situation or conditions needed for the transmission of the element. This topic is a bit more reflective, and digs a bit deeper than the “Beginnings” questions. Sample questions might include “What allowed you to learn this skill?” or “What help did you get early on?” Questions here should also not focus just on the past, but also the future with such questions as “What needs to be in place so that future generations can also learn this tradition?”

The goal here is to ask questions to help you understand the process of transmission and to assist later in the development of a safeguarding plan. Sometimes these questions flow naturally out of the “Beginnings” questions, or questions about the future of the tradition, or the element in question may just as well fit at the end of an interview session. Ultimately, future safeguarding plans must address the complex issues of transmission, teaching, and learning. Documentation that focuses on the “what” of the tradition while ignoring the “how” will be less useful for developing safeguarding measures.

3.Community Context

These questions focus on how one person connects to another, and how the community is organized around the element in question. This helps the researcher measure the health of communication and transmission within the community as well as the cohesiveness or porosity of the community itself. It examines whether membership in the community of practitioners is restricted tightly, or if its membership is fluid. “Community” here may refer to several levels of community: the community of elder tradition bearers as well as their interactions with younger learners and their interactions with the community of watchers, purchasers, and or users of the element. This is important to understand when developing plans for the future transmission of knowledge or the development of audiences or markets for that element

4. Aesthetic Concerns

Questions here will help you understand the aesthetic choices the bearer makes about the tradition or element and about how the tradition is perceived. It also poses questions about what is acceptable in terms of design or performance of the tradition or element. Questions that start with, “What makes a good…” are excellent here. Asking what differentiates “good” and “bad” in the tradition also gives interesting information.

5. The Process of Creation

This is where you get detailed information on the mechanics of the element, or how a particular craft or performance is created or made.  These are “How do you…?” questions, as in “How do you organize this festival?” or “Can you walk me through the process of making this object, from start to finish?” Depending on the time spent on this topic, you can collect a basic synopsis of the process, or very detailed, step-by-step instructions. The process of creation is often far more detailed than even the practitioner or bearer may initially perceive seeing as much of the very intricate knowledge required is sometimes taken for granted.

6. The Evolution of Tradition

Asking questions about the evolution of an element can provide a fascinating window into its history and function within a community. And, like Topic 2 and 5, it can provide good information for later use in developing a safeguarding a plan for the element. Questions here focus on what the individual does within a larger tradition, the balance and interplay between what is carried forward from the past, and how the interviewee interprets or re-imagines the tradition. These may include changes to construction materials, new tools, or the incorporation of novel ideals.  Questions might include things like “How has the tradition changed over time?” or “What new things have you seen incorporated into the element?” or “What are its challenges and opportunities?”

At the end of an interview, it is always valuable to ask the tradition bearer to comment on the interview process, and perhaps ask a question like “What have I forgotten to ask?” or “What do you think it is most important that people know about this tradition?”  The important thing for the researcher to remember is that the best documentation is that which results in practical, useful, and applicable information for the community.