Jorijn Neyrinck
Main Coordinator, Werkplaats Immaterieel Erfgoed
Eveline Seghers
Project Coordinator, Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museums Project

It has become recognized nowadays that cultural heritage encompasses more than collections of objects or monuments; it includes just as much also intangible manifestations such as traditions and living expressions. This intangible cultural heritage (ICH) stretches into a wide range of domains of our society, such as performing arts, social practices, oral traditions, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature, and the knowledge and skills used to produce traditional crafts.

Over the course of the last two decades, several initiatives have been taken to safeguard ICH, in addition to the earlier established international heritage policies that had been focusing mostly on tangible heritage expressions. Among these recent instruments devoted to ICH is first and foremost the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage—including the Operational Directives for the Implementation of the Convention—but also the 2014 Seoul Declaration of ICOM on the Intangible Heritage. The ICOM definition of a museum, dating back to 2007, already recognized the role of museums in the preservation and protection of both “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity.” Museums can contribute significantly to safeguarding ICH, using their mandate, infrastructures, and resources to develop creative initiatives about its preservation. Hence, these strategic documents by UNESCO, ICOM, and other relevant heritage policy agencies have significantly contributed to a blueprint for the integration of safeguarding ICH and museum practices. These practices range from involving ICH practitioners in museum activities, such as exhibitions and lectures and developing participatory approaches, to employing various information and communication technologies to bring meaning and knowledge linked to ICH closer to audiences.

Museums and Safeguarding ICH

While awareness among heritage and museum professionals of the importance of collaborative work on ICH has been steadily rising, a number of outstanding challenges has also become apparent. For instance, there is often disagreement over the concept of ICH and what it comprises. Oral history and narrative interviews with practitioners, for example, can provide background information to objects or practices being highlighted in a museum. Such oral and documentary resources in museum circles are often regarded as ICH in themselves, whereas ICH professionals, on the other hand, point out their intermediary character. These resources offer a medium of transmission or documentation, but do not constitute a ‘living ICH practice’ in itself. In addition, current approaches such as participatory museology are very suitable to fulfill the interactive processes aimed for also in museums’ work on living heritage, but should not be regarded as being one and the same, which often occurs. Moreover, in present day-to-day museum practices, participatory museology still appears to feature at the margins. The specific skills required for such participatory practices, such as a storytelling approach and a stronger emphasis on both audience and practitioner engagement, are in many cases not at the center of traditional educational trajectories of museum staff. Similarly, perspectives may differ considering the main focus or objective of the ICH activities. According to the UNESCO 2003 Convention, the principal goal is to safeguard the viability of living heritage practices with a view to future generations, and thereby taking into account due participation of communities, groups, and individuals involved. For museum professionals, however, the focus of ICH activities might lie primarily in enriching their activity around the collection(s) at the core of their objectives.

Formulating perceived divergences between museums and the paradigm of safeguarding ICH appears to suggest that these perspectives are at odds with each other. It is, however, more productive to provide a forum for encounters and exchanges between museums and ICH. The key then lies in cooperatively refining and developing multiple perspectives, conceptual frameworks and methodologies with a view to serve practices on museums and collections as much as they can foster the safeguarding of ICH. Such a contact zone is what the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museums Project (IMP) has been providing in recent years.


The Intangible Cultural Heritage & Museums Project aims to contribute to this complex subject by means of capacity building and knowledge exchange between museum professionals and those engaged in ICH. The project runs from 2017 until 2020, and is a partnership of organizations in five partner countries: Werkplaats Immaterieel Erfgoed (Belgium), Dutch Center for ICH (Netherlands), SIMBDEA (Italy), Centre Français du Patrimoine Culturel Immatériel (France), and Verband der Museen der Schweiz (Switzerland). Importantly, two international museum networking partners and one from the ICH field joined the project: ICOM international – the international Council of Museums, NEMO—the European museum association, and ICH NGO FORUM—the international platform of NGOs accredited to the UNESCO 2003 convention.

It is certainly no coincidence that the IMP was initiated by collaborative efforts of a group of accredited NGOs in the context of the UNESCO 2003 Convention. These respective organizations had similar networking roles and shared a commitment to safeguarding ICH in each of their countries, combined with their experiences connected to a strong and varied museum sector. The majority of museums in 2015 appeared to be inactive, and very often unaware, about the emerging ICH paradigm and possibilities. Driven by this observation, this network cooperation developed a project proposal converging museums and the ICH field.

The project’s international setup is one of its key dimensions. Actively enabling transnational mobility provides an optimal framework for obtaining the envisaged goals of the project, including cross-disciplinary peer learning, developing professional skills and tools, and creating international networking opportunities. This approach enables the exchange of good practices between museum and heritage professionals within Europe. The international orientation of the IMP is part of a broader set of strategic directives, which also include goals such as raising awareness on the topic of ICH and museums among both museum and heritage professionals and the development of innovative participatory safeguarding measures for ICH.

To realize the project’s goals, an action program was laid out at the start. Between 2017 and 2020, five international conferences and expert meetings have been organized in each of the five partner countries. These contribute to the transnational mobility and exchange goals of the project,and enable outreach to include museum and heritage professionals in the country where the conference and meeting take place. Within the framework of these meetings, a special place is also given to contemporary co-creations: ICH communities, groups or individuals can apply for funding in order to develop a creative collaboration and interaction with a museum. For example, in the most recent meeting in Belgium, a co-creation was set up between practitioners of WORD WA(a)R, which is a creative collective launching concept battles (in the history line of spoken word contest traditions) and the Africamuseum in Tervuren.

In addition, several other forms of outreach are planned. An online toolkit and a book will be published as conclusions of the project to share the knowledge and insights gathered throughout the IMP process. The toolbox will become an open access repository of good practices and inspirational methodologies for future collaborations between ICH practitioners and museums. The project’s website functions—and will continue to do so in the few next years—as an online platform for sharing all of the collected knowledge, tools, and literature resources on ICH and museums.

Connected Contemporary Challenges for Museums and ICH in Society

The Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museums Project operates with a strong focus on the embeddedness of ICH and museums in society. For this reason, each of the five international conferences and expert meetings have been addressing another key challenge that museums, as much as ICH practitioners, are facing today in the context of Europe as well as on a more global scale. The first of these topics, explored at the inaugural IMP conference and expert meeting in 2017 is superdiversity. How can museums respond to the challenges presented by very diverse societies and social interactions, and what are innovative ways in which ICH can help tackle these? In such contexts, museum often hold great potential for working towards answers. They can function as dialogue spaces to negotiate subjects such as evolving identities, social conflict, and controversial heritage. The theme of the 2018 meeting in Italy was participation. They focused on questions relating to the involvement of ICH communities, groups, and individuals in museum practices in a sustainable and long-term manner. This integration poses its own challenges, such as having to renegotiate roles and power. This key focus thus contributes to establishing compromises and new balance relationships, a theme that is recurring across all IMP activities.

Urban societies’ key challenge, discussed at the 2018 meeting in Switzerland, addresses how museums can contribute to present-day societal transitions in the field of city development, such as economics, welfare, and agriculture. ICH has the potential to contribute to establishing new, sustainable relationships between different actors and sectors involved. The 2019 meeting in France approached the innovation challenge in more detail. It explored the innovating and transformational power and capacity that ICH and its safeguarding brings into museums today, and vice versa. The fifth meeting, hosted in 2019 in Belgium, centered around cultural policies. International, national, regional, and local governmental policies are the backdrop against which museum and cultural heritage work is implemented in practice. A comparative analysis of the policies in the five partner countries opens up opportunities to compare the strengths and weaknesses of each, and to gather innovative ideas for future policymaking and funding opportunities.

Future Directions

At the time of this writing, IMP is entering its final phase, which consists of gathering and converging the insights and lessons of three years of work together and the five international meetings as well as over a hundred different contributions, museum case studies, workshops, keynotes, position papers, and co-creations by a variety of ICH and museum professionals, practitioners, tradition bearers, researchers, policy makers, and others. Attention is now being devoted towards providing sustainable output in the form of tools, website, and book next to continued and growing cooperation in the network of partners and participants throughout the IMP. A follow-up project, elaborating on the rich collaboration and on the actual emerging questions from this first IMP experience, belongs to the future possibilities. For example, the complex question of how to address collection planning in museums in relation with ICH has been raised several times in the IMP project but currently remains without clear answers as it needs more time and space for experiment and reflection.

Finally, the IMP and associated partners are ready to share the expertise and experience built throughout this ICH and museums project, for future exchange and capacity building with peers in a global perspective. It will become a shared pleasure if the IMP process inspires and helps blossom other initiatives exploring the contact zones between museums or collecting institutions and the safeguarding of ICH in different corners of the world.