Reiko Yoshida
Intangible Heritage Section, UNESCO

UNESCO’s efforts to raise awareness about the importance of intangible cultural heritage are central to our mission as the Secretariat for the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. We seek to be not only a clearing house of information but also a catalyst for international cooperation in the safeguarding of ICH. Through our multilingual website, we explain what intangible heritage is and how it might be safeguarded through publications and exhibitions.

We provide up-to-date information about the Convention, all its procedures, and meetings of its governing bodies as well as other conferences and seminars from around the world. The website also brings together texts, images, and videos for all the elements inscribed on the Urgent Safeguarding List and the Representative List in addition to information on safeguarding projects implemented in recent years by UNESCO or selected by the Committee as good practices.

The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage has emphasized repeatedly the fundamental importance of international cooperation in promoting awareness of ICH. External visibility and recognition, whether local, national, or international, can help communities to identify with their own heritage and recognize its importance not only for themselves but for others as well, in turn encouraging greater pride in their heritage and motivating them to transmit it to younger generations. Respect for the heritage of others is fundamental to the Convention, and so our awareness-raising activities aim to ensure such mutual respect. Increased visibility of ICH can also bring greater awareness among policymakers, government officials, and civil societies about the importance of intangible cultural heritage and the means to safeguard it.

When the new operational directives were adopted for raising awareness about intangible cultural heritage (to be presented for final adoption by the General Assembly in June 2010), the Committee emphasized the primary responsibility of each country to raise awareness among its own people about their heritage and that of others. The Committee also insisted on the necessity of fully involving the communities in all stages of raising awareness. According to the Committee, the respective country’s free, prior, and informed consent is a precondition for awareness-raising activities, any customary practices governing access to specific aspects of heritage must be strictly respected, and the communities themselves should benefit from such activities.

Special care needs to be taken because increased visibility may inadvertently bring negative consequences. Making some things visible may make others invisible, creating tension among communities or countries. It is essential to listen to heritage bearers and communities and to make every effort to ensure that raising awareness serves their interests and respects their wishes.

In the future, UNESCO would like to tap into mass media to communicate our message about the importance of intangible cultural heritage more vigorously. Creating strategic partnerships with other cultural institutions, such as museums, will also play a pivotal role in our visibility work. A partnership agreement that UNESCO recently concluded is the Musee de quai Branly, which aims to share information about the elements inscribed on the 2003 Convention Lists, thus creating a new channel of diffusion for UNESCO’s message. This partnership is a pilot initiative that UNESCO would like to extend to other museums around the world.