The evolution of the international heritage regime

If heritage-making is a process of value appropriation which spans across scales, we need first to understand how values are created and by whom. On the international scale, one key actor has been UNESCO. As a result of the large-scale destruction of cultural heritage during the Second World War, UNESCO was established in 1945 to promote international cultural heritage protection. Through the vehicle of international conventions and laws,3 “European ideas about conservation and the nature and meaning of monuments have become internationally naturalized so that these principles have become ‘common sense’” (Smith 2006: 21).

This discourse on the protection of cultural property shifted in 1972 with the adoption of the World Heritage Convention (WHC) (UNESCO 1972). The WHC is considered a landmark document in international heritage protection because it extended the notion of heritage to include cultural and natural heritage (Meskell 2013),and more importantly,because it changed constitutional norms and values. This UNESCO Convention not only provides the basis for officially recognising cultural practices and sites as “national heritage” domestically and “World Heritage” internationally; it also assigns a range of values to this heritage such as its “outstanding universal value” (UNESCO 1972: Preamble) and “authenticity” (ICOMOS 1964: Art. 9).Through its nearly universal adoption worldwide,4 the WHC further institutionalised European heritage conservation ethics, values, and thought systems (Byrne 1991; Smith 2006: 27). The UNESCO WHC thus not only assigns value to heritage, but also determines the criteria against which this value was to be measured.

Soon after its adoption, representatives of developing countries criticised the Eurocentric notion of cultural heritage and its focus on material, tangible forms of culture (Hafstein 2007: 77—80). The main safeguarding instrument of the WHC, the World Heritage List, soon demonstrated this shortcoming, as it over-represented’ heritage sites from Western, particularly European countries (Steiner & Frey 2012). This demonstrated that the WHC only valued material heritage, at the expense of immaterial forms of heritage, such as cultural practices.

During the 1980s, UNESCO made numerous attempts to address these concerns, such as cooperating with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to develop model provisions6 for the protection of folklore (UNESCO 1997) and adopting the Recommendation on the Safeguarding ofTraditional Culture and Folklore in 1989 (UNESCO 1989), which was based on an anthropological notion of culture that neglects cultural origins or ownership (Aikawa 2004: 137—138). The criticism of the WHC, and the inadequacies of existing international legal frameworks to protect traditional cultural practices, would lead to two shifts in the decades to come: first, the recognition of intangible heritage and; second, a greater focus on global cultural diversity.

Despite UNESCO’s adoption of the 1989 Recommendation, the debate on how to safeguard traditional culture continued, reaching a new climax in the early 1990s. Two developments contributed to this intensification. On the one hand, a UNESCO study conducted between 1987 and 1993 revealed that developing countries were under-represented, thus substantiating the claim that UNESCO had a Eurocentric bias and focused on valuing material cultural sites and objects over immaterial cultural practices.7 On the other hand, with growing criticism of the Eurocentric understanding and conservation approaches to heritage, alternative safeguarding measures entered the debate.8

In the reform efforts, East Asian countries have been very influential (Aikawa 2004: 137-139), resulting in the first shift from the focus on material culture to the inclusion of “intangible” cultural practices. Japan, having only become a member of UNESCO in 1991 (UNESCO 2018d), started to promote its notion of “intangible heritage” and its understanding of “authenticity.”9 At the same time, South Korea recommended the Living Human Treasures system to UNESCO in 1993. The system encourages cultural practitioners to transmit their cultural knowledge and skills to the next generation by providing a title and stipend. While UNESCO had already been undergoing a shift towards recognising the value of folklore, East Asian countries’ efforts were decisive in conceptualising this culture as “immaterial” or “intangible” forms of heritage — thus elevating folklore to the status of“heritage.”

Following the Japanese and South Korean initiatives, UNESCO adopted measures based on this East Asian conceptualisation of intangible culture.10 In late 1997, UNESCO issued the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, resulting in three Masterpieces lists (2001, 2003 and 2005) (UNESCO 2005). However, similar to the WHC Convention, this East Asian value framework was based on safeguarding “excellent” and “outstanding” forms of intangible heritage." Due to this value frame, the debate over how to conceptualise and safeguard immaterial forms of culture continued into the 2000s. Indeed, the Masterpieces Proclamation has been criticised as promoting an elitist notion of culture (“masterpiece”) (Hafstein 2009: 98). Moreover, it does not have the full administrative and financial support a Convention should have (Skounti 2008: 82). For these reasons, advocates pushed for the adoption of an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Convention.12

This paradigm shift to include intangible heritage was finally completed when UNESCO adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003 (UNESCO 2003). In contrast to the previous paradigm embedded in the WHC, the ICH Convention emphasises the need for a community-based, participatory approach to ICH safeguarding (Kurin 2004: 68). The UNESCO debate had been influenced by a growing concern for cultural rights (a subcategory of human rights), resulting in reference to the Human Kights Convention in the preamble of the ICH Convention (UNESCO 2003). Finally, the ICH Conventions Representative List is meant to demonstrate “representative” examples of community culture, replacing the previous notions of outstanding value and authenticity (Hafstein 2009: 10—102; Skounti 2008: 77—78).

As Smith and Akagawa (2008) noted, the

drafting and implementation of both the Masterpieces programme and the ICHC are revealing about the tensions that exist between the different philosophical and conceptual constructs that underpin dominant and authorised definitions of‘heritage’, which we might now label ‘tangible heritage’ and ‘intangible heritage’.

(2008: 4)

This tension was based on the discrepancies between only recognising, and thus valuing, intangible heritage which was deemed “outstanding” and “excellent,” or following a more egalitarian approach that would recognise the value of all cultural practices.

Overall, the emphasis on intangible heritage has been part of a broader push within UNESCO to promote global cultural diversity more strongly. The introduction of “intangible cultural heritage” thus needs to be seen within more significant developments within UNESCO. The promotion of cultural diversity has led to the diversification of heritage-related concepts, which now include, for instance, “cultural space” and “cultural landscape” (Aikawa-Faure 2009: 15—17), which are used to more comprehensively grasp the plural forms of cultural heritage worldwide and add value to the socio-cultural environment in which cultural sites and practices are embedded. These new concepts and value systems within UNESCO, as well as regional safeguarding measures as embodied in the Burra Charter or the Nara Document of Authenticity, have received international attention and have been incorporated into domestic heritage regimes (Taylor 2004). These heritage regimes, which appropriate UNESCO concepts and ideas while developing their own approaches to heritage safeguarding (Nagaoka 2015), demonstrate alternatives, and at times challenge European traditions of heritage conservation. This phenomenon is especially vibrant in Asia today, where governments have displayed a desire to become international players - on a par with the West — who will influence international heritage governance and challenge the dominance of European approaches to heritage conservation (Winter 2014).

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