I have had the opportunity to live in a small village, Amaravathi, in Andhra Pradesh, South India, for the past two years. It has been continually inhabited for almost 2,400 years, a 300-acre landscape or ecomuseum that is embedded with rich layers of heritage values of significance. It is the birthplace of Mahayana Buddhism. I could engage with universities and the School of Planning and Architecture from the state to scope their role in safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) of the region. We organized two major festivals on ICH, one at the regional and another at the national level. This immersion of living among ICH carriers and transmitters and fluency in Telugu language and its local dialects enables me to make the following observations. These are also drawn from teaching designated courses on ICH and associated domains since 1985 in Australian, Indian, and Vietnamese universities and working on the living heritage of communities from Ethiopia to Bangladesh, from India to Korea. Understanding and maximizing on the role of higher education institutions such as universities in promoting and safeguarding ICH is critical for the continuity of the cultural diversity of all forms of heritage across the world.
The suite of cultural conventions of UNESCO, especially the 1972 World Heritage Convention and the 2003 Intangible Heritage Convention, have been catalytic in the growth of higher education programs and professional development programs. Programs on the former instrument are well established. The latter is emerging with challenges in addressing heritage education that is predominantly focused on tangible heritage, whether movable or/and immovable. All forms of heritage education and at all levels mandates rigorous curriculum development, diverse and appropriate pedagogy and decision making for planning courses and programs.
The translation of conceptual frameworks into higher education/post graduate programming and research is a challenge for promoting intangible heritage. Debates, discussions, and ambiguity of understandings continue around such core concepts as safeguarding, intergenerational transmission, first voice and rights of carriers and transmitters, inventorization, transliteration and digitization of living cultural systems, and the very paradigm of intangible heritage. Majority of heritage education programs, while focusing on tangible heritage tend to add an additional course on intangible heritage largely introducing the 2003 Convention. Designated programs are emerging such as the Master’s Program on Intangible Heritage at the Chonbuk National University in ROK.
Tim Curtis, Chief, Intangible Heritage Section at UNESCO, underlines the importance of the new generations of people with qualifications at post graduate level who could be promoting and safeguarding the diverse ICH around the world. He initiated a workshop in Bangkok in 2015 to encourage networking of higher educational institutions in the Asia Pacific, promoting local pools of expertise on ICH. The participants came from sixteen universities and from eleven countries, from all the sub-regions of the Asia Pacific, a vast area with over 60 percent of the world’s population. Discussions in the workshop were informed by diverse disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, history, indigenous studies, environmental sciences, dance, theatre, folklife, planning, and policy making.
This higher education networking could complement the UNESCO intangible heritage capacity-building program, a standard setting facility that raises awareness and promotes the understanding and safeguarding of ICH under the 2003 Convention. The importance of developing curricula and pedagogy that is different from those dealing with tangible heritage resources was underlined. A preferred future would be where courses and programs are offered taking integrated and holistic approaches to both tangible and intangible heritage. Universities pride themselves in academic freedom. While the Convention is a standard setting instrument, it is more open to critical and discursive research and teaching with definitions, domains of elements, and forms of engagement with community groups. Models and modalities of facilitating learning requires a better and ethical nexus between university programs and carrier and transmitter community groups.
In the face of global decline in the support for humanities, we need to strategically advocate with university officials on the relevance of ICH so that they can appreciate and promote related programs. Universities are placing substantial emphasis on science, technology, engineering, economics, planning and architecture. We need to advocate that ICH is relevant in developing appropriate technologies, sustainable architecture, cultural economics, and design to improve life. Indigenous and local knowledge systems are becoming significant in addressing concerns of environmental degradation, fire management regimes, and climate change. There is substantial evidence-based knowledge in different disciplines on ICH, but integrating this knowledge into and across disciplines is needed urgently to safeguarding ICH and the diversity of elements being mapped all over the world.
Universities compete to secure grants and major research support. The breadth of challenges for safeguarding ICH is so big that it provides opportunities for cooperation and collaboration to work together and build a strong platform. We need pedagogy that enables learners to work closely with knowledge bearers. Ethical approaches are needed to go beyond treating knowledge bearers as information sources. New forms of collaborative teaching and learning in partnership with community groups need to be developed, moderating the authority of the academy based on respect for intangible heritage and respective knowledge communities. A key ethical concern to be addressed is understanding and enabling the benefits to the source community groups. Long term relationships are needed and these are possible at the faculty level while student cohorts could contribute to documentation and awareness raising.
Professional and academic associations and networks play an important role. For example, anthropological associations, folklife studies associations, archaeological associations with ethno-archaeology subgroups, councils of architects, performing arts trusts, and so on. Here ICHCAP could play an important role in the Asia-Pacific region. It could provide an online interactive platform as a UNESCO Category 2 Centre with the mandate for information sharing and networking. It could bring together the range of professional NGOs, universities, and cultural agencies that address ICH. This could be incremental, starting simple and make it work and expand. Such a platform could work with cooperation from universities. It could, for instance, highlight how ICH is embedded in various courses and programs, provide access to dissertations (with abstracts) by researchers on ICH and related studies, highlight ICH research across international boundaries, and explore and unravel the complexity of intellectual property rights that are mostly dealt with by WIPO.
As for priority issues, how can the synergies with universities assist in enhancing infrastructure, inventory methods and systems, effective safeguarding plans and measures, and effective participation in the 2003 ICH Convention modalities and mechanisms. Similarly, universities have considerable capacity to focus on policy analysis and development. Policy analysis could address transversal aspects: key concepts, community involvement, sustainable development, education of future generations for ICH-related employment, and advisory support to government and other stakeholders. It would help in delineating ICH policy framework and scoping interdisciplinary engagement with other related policy frameworks. Interdisciplinary thinktanks are useful for providing new and innovative approaches and multiple perspectives.
Collaborations for promoting and safeguarding ICH through universities is limitless, waiting to be scoped and facilitated. Awareness raising about ICH is one of the key challenges that could be taken up by media and journalism departments. Historical research on ICH elements needs to be taken up. Applied teaching strategies and practice-based research will enable the graduates in the marketplace. We need to graduate professionals in research, education, policy making, management, heritage practice, and so on. Documenting, inventorying, and archiving using digital technologies could be taken up by library and archival science departments. These and several other avenues to engage with universities in safeguarding ICH is exciting with huge potential. What is discussed here is only the beginning.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that problematizing or pointing to the limitations of the 2003 Convention by universities would benefit implementation of it, or most importantly safeguarding ICH, at the local level. University programs are ideally placed to address contextualization of ICH elements through deep research; facilitating the expanded idea of the classroom working with carrier and transmitter community groups; and addressing the implications of commercialization with the rapid growth of tourism and cultural industry sectors.