Safeguarding living heritage as a mission – interview with Irena Todorova

Photo exhibition “A Journey through the Living traditions”
Invitation for international scientific conference ‘Local Communities, Cultural Heritage and Museums'
Safeguarding living heritage as a mission


Today we meet Irena Todorova, Executive Director of the Regional Centre for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in South-Eastern Europe under the auspices of UNESCO, to find out what are the challenges faced by our cultural heritage. How do traditions survive in the conditions of a COVID 19 crisis and who are the people devoted to keeping the traditions alive as a professional duty.

Tell us more about the role of the Regional Centre Sofia, its scope and main activity.

Irena Todorova: The Regional Centre for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in South-Eastern Europe under the auspices of UNESCO has a crucial role in the safeguarding of living heritage. Probably it sounds ambitious, but if we carefully examine its functions, we will see that the Regional Centre is the only structure of UNESCO exclusively dedicated to living heritage in the region of South-East Europe. It is responsible for increasing the capacities of experts on this subject in 16 countries within its scope. We organize workshops and trainings aimed at building a network of experts working in the field of intangible cultural heritage. The need of such institution arose more than ten years ago, when UNESCO separated the “tangible” from the “intangible” heritage. Such recognition of culture is applied to enhance the value of traditions and customs, having the same value as historical, architectural, religious monuments and so on. In 2003, a special value was introduced – “intangible heritage”, which draws attention to the processes of creation of artifacts. Artifacts are seen as the result of activities, highly executive, as a “trace” of the process of making and reflecting knowledge and know-how (savoir-faire).

Which are the Bulgarian elements inscribed on the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Bulgaria is proud to have a number of entries among which are ‘Cultural practices associated to the 1st of March’, ‘Bulgarian chitalishte (community cultural center)’, ‘Festival of folklore in Koprivshtitsa’, ‘Surova folk feast’, ‘The tradition of carpet-making in Chiprovtsi’, ‘Nestinarstvo’ and ‘Bistritsa Babi’. However, the efforts of the Bulgarian institutions and communities should not stop here. We possess a rich palette of living traditions that could find a place on the UNESCO’s Lists only with strategic policy. UNESCO works on the enhancement and presentation of the broadest sense of cultural heritage, in particular intangible heritage, because it connects people and communities from different parts of the world.

The imposed restrictions during the COVID 19 crisis have put culture in a difficult situation – theaters are still not working at full capacity, and a number of musical and creative events have been cancelled. According to your observations, what is its impact on the region of South-East Europe, and on the events related to ICH?

We are all equally affected, whether here or in countries of South-East Europe. Physical isolation disrupted the proper practice of customs and also damaged spiritually and  financially the bearers of the intangible cultural heritage. Illusion is that digital tools compensate. Internet cannot replace live contact in sharing traditional crafts and skills. In the center  of the intangible cultural heritage is the bearer, the place, the environment, social contact. How the emotion could be transferred into the virtual world? This is practically impossible. It is like watching online theater. If there is no human energy, if there is no shared moment, history, the lyrical value disappears.

What are the lesson learned from this situation, or it is still early to find them out?

It is too early now. During a crisis, we are all philosophically thinking, we talk about the post-material. However, right after a crisis, we immediately forget about that. I hope to realize that the modern world and new technologies, of course not purposefully, are not helping to safeguard living traditions. Those who help to preserve them, except institutions, are the young people, without whom the transfer of knowledge is impossible.

What are the other potential threats for our cultural heritage?

As I mentioned before, the physical world is more important than the virtual world. We cannot be satisfied only with a virtual walk in the museum, it is not a real experience, a kind of mimicry. We cannot contemplate Sacré Coeur through the monitor, in fact we are not able to talk about online contemplation at all, so that is absurd. Well, in other words, we are faced  with the misunderstanding that Internet can compensate for physical access to culture, but we must not allow this momentum to overwhelm us. Intangible as well as tangible heritage are really related to emotional experience, as it is based on the connection with a specific place, with specific communities and stories.

What keep traditions alive?

We, each and every one of us. We talk about feasts, songs, dances, skills to do different things. For some it is a destiny and a professional path, for craftsmen for example. For others, it is a way to spend their free time – a variety of performing skills, searching for and “remembering” space-limited knowledge and the ability to do something.

How has the attitude towards traditions changed through generations?

I am not able to give a definite answer, but there is distancing from traditions. It is not a surprise. The political transition in our country focuses us much more to the outside, to the foreign, the western, the modern, leaving the traditional to survive as it can. Intangible cultural heritage is vulnerable and most affected by the absence of strategic policy, because it is not part of a formal education system, but it is important for maintaining and sharing images, ideas, symbolic worlds, important for diverse human communities.

What is the potential of ICH in our country and how could it be developed?

I am not able to talk about potential when it comes to traditions. Traditions are as they are, they are dynamic, changing over time depending on the generations. They are what enable us to think and express our relationship with our ancestors in an emotional way. That is why we need to strengthen the link between the generations.

Interview for “Под моста” – Emilia Ilieva, 28.10.2020