Info Session on the process of accreditation of NGOs08/03/2023
The seminar “Documentation and Presentation of Intangible Cultural Heritage” starts this week24/04/2023
Interview with Ms. Irena Todorova, Executive Director of the Regional Centre for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in South-Eastern Europe under the auspices of UNESCO, for Tribune.bg
Tell us more about the Center and its role in safeguarding of the cultural heritage.
I.T.: It is not within the powers of a single entity to deal effectively with the safeguarding of the cultural heritage. This is a process that, by necessity, involves participants from the general public through its communities, all the way to the central government and local authorities, and as a whole, should be based on a shared understanding of what of the things inherited from of the past has retained its value in the present. There is no denying, however, that the Regional Center has its own contribution to make with respect to the living heritages that we recognize, in terms of traditions, knowledge, skills, crafts and the like. In recent years, my colleagues and I have come a long way bringing the subject out in the open, transforming it from a matter of academic interest into part of the public discourse. We managed to draw scores of young people to the cause of safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage, which is no easy task. Essentially, that type of heritage is not transmitted on paper, there are no handbooks written about it that would guarantee its sustainability over time. It is a living thing of value because we make it what it is, through our bond with generations past, and in fact, the responsibility for it lies with us humans, as bearers and custodians of that heritage. You can see how sensitive our job becomes, since it is our mission not just to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage bit to draw, and pin, public attention to it.
Our organization is the only such UNESCO-supported entity in Europe, and Bulgaria is especially privileged to be its host country. We represent 17 nations, with most of them we work actively to focus the attention of individuals, experts and politicians on the process of safeguarding and promoting the living heritages. We succeed in engaging communities from the entire region, and jointly with them, in promoting good regional cooperation. Ultimately, cultural empathy is part of any meaningful international relations. I would be remiss not to mention the provisions of the 2003 Convention, through which UNESCO has pinned public attention to the intangible cultural heritage, as the key to our concerted action.
What is the role of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage?
I.T.: The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 2003, and ratified by the Bulgarian government almost immediately. It deals, most generally, with cultural specificities such as customs, knowledge and skills, traditional songs and dances and the musical instruments associated with them, as well as physical objects, artefacts and cultural spaces recognized by communities as part of their cultural heritage. Parallel with that, the Convention compiles a Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, containing hundreds of examples of representations of traditional cultures and folklore, of performing skills and mastery in practicing various handicrafts. In the current year, we have dedicated all our activities to the 20th anniversary of the Convention. The final event (the Annual Meeting of the Global Centers), scheduled to be held in September in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, where the Municipality is a key partner of this Center, will provide a platform for ‘talking over’ the issues and challenges facing the intangible cultural heritage between participants coming, literally, from all corners of the world. Here I make a special point of mentioning Plovdiv as an exceptional example of a place where heritages come alive all the time, and traditions live on. Just look at that city’s Cultural Calendar, it’s got everything from musical routes across time, through a host of festivals and concerts, to Arts and Crafts Week. Of course, all of that is made possible by the visible synergy between the communities and the local authorities.
In actuality, it is not accidental that UNESCO makes, albeit in relative terms, a distinction between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritages. This cultural recognition is necessary in order to enhance the standing of traditions and customs as being of equal value with historical, architectural and religious monuments. In 2003, UNESCO introduced a special value: the ‘intangible heritage’, drawing attention to the processes involved in the creation of artefacts. Thus, artefacts are regarded as the outcome of activities, largely performative ones, as the ‘trace’ of the process of creation and reflection of the knowledge and skill epitomized in the notion of savoir-faire.
From a political perspective, this Convention once again tackles the subject matter of cultural differences as ‘a wealth of culture’, an opportunity for mutual awareness and sharing of heritages, a manifestation of cultural diversity. In this case, cultural differences do not erect boundaries; they are an element of establishing familiarity and maintaining dialog between communities, peoples and entire nations.
What does intangible cultural heritage mean, and why is such attention paid to the ‘intangible’ in the first place?
I.T.: As I already mentioned, the Convention accentuates the area of knowledge and skills, as reflecting, directly or indirectly, relationships between humans and nature, as well as among humans. I can cite a number of examples of diversity of cultural heritages through the knowledge associated with traditional crafts, the skills involved in the production of foods, the specific rites and rituals that actually reflect the humans’ bond with nature or the notions of human relationships. This domain is not always visible, as usually we consume its outcome: the making of an object, the performance of a song, a traditional custom like March 1st. But more often than not, the underlying process remains ‘hidden’, making it incumbent upon us to pay special attention to its preservation and transmission to the future generations. Because, in the final analysis, all that traditionality and rituality, if you like, is an essential part of our way of life. The ‘tangible’ is visible, available to the touch and feel, whereas the ‘other’ is invisible, ephemeral, elusive over time and more difficult to safeguard and preserve.
What new element do you see in the Convention’s treatment of cultural diversity?
I.T.: The Convention defines cultural heritages as a wealth that is in the process of being safeguarded and preserved, not as an ‘inventory list’ that has a beginning and an end. This is the new element: the understanding of cultural diversity as a high value, one that is essential to the relevant societies, an inalienable part of their way of life. This is why we are talking about a process, rather than a description of the forms and elements of cultural diversity. The safeguarding and preservation of the heritage requires persistent efforts at different levels, including legislative, educational (both in formal and non-formal education), as well as cultural policies: what to support and what to safeguard; it’s about our way of life today, but with an eye to the future generations. Such an understanding will enable any community, group, people or nation to inscribe elements of its everyday life in the treasure trove of cultural heritages of humanity.
Doesn’t the global world put the intangible cultural heritage at risk?
I.T.: This is exactly right, it is at risk, and generally the open world poses particular challenges for the living heritages. Young people become increasingly alienated from their traditions in terms of actually practicing them, despite their increased interest in folklore events that enable them to experience the past, or culinary exhibitions showcasing local delicacies based on traditional recipes and techniques; here we can also include the handmade festivals, which enjoy particular attention. All of that is very much in style and it’s good to have it, but ultimately, cultures change, they start a new life in accordance with the new times. We cannot stop the world from developing, but we can preserve, protect and transmit our traditions as the way to express our emotional bond to generations past.