A petition is calling for Notting Hill Carnival to be added to a global register of “intangible cultural heritage”.
The demand, on the change.org website, proposes that, to protect its future, the carnival should be recognised as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The petition organisers argue that getting Notting Hill Carnival on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list would “increase the scope for protecting this important London, British and global celebration”. They emphasise the importance of “safeguarding the carnival’s future as a festival in the streets of Notting Hill rather than behind a perimeter of a local park”.
The word “heritage” is normally applied to historic buildings and other physical objects, but UNESCO says that it can also be applied to events, traditions, even genres of music. Traditional festivals are just as valuable as old churches and ancient ruins, UNESCO argues, and just as much at risk from neglect and decay. It’s all explained here .
In 2006 the UN Convention for the Safeguarding of Cultural Heritage came into force. Any country can sign up to the Convention and can apply to have its precious cultural heritage added to UNESCO’s list. Funding is available to protect and promote intangible cultural heritage.
The vast majority of countries, including almost all European states, have signed the Convention. There is one glaring, and shameful, exception the United Kingdom.
Until that situation changes, there is no hope of getting UNESCO recognition for Notting Hill Carnival under the Convention.
Back in October 2015, Soca News asked the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) whether the UK had any intention of signing the Convention. And if not, what is DCMS’s objection to signing the Convention?
The Department clearly had difficulty with this question, because it took five months to come up with an answer. Jackie Shirley, in the Ministerial Support Team, began encouragingly:
“There is an abundance of intangible heritage that we are lucky enough to enjoy here in the United Kingdom and the Department recognises its importance. The Government is keen that the rich intangible cultural heritage of the UK is properly valued and, when necessary, preserved.”
So what is the problem?
Ms Shirley explained:
“The Department is extremely wary about any legislation in a field as sensitive as cultural activity that, by its very nature, changes rapidly and is difficult to define. While the Department has no current plans to ratify this particular UNESCO Convention, DCMS does respect the general aims of the instrument.”
She concluded by saying that many cultural heritage projects are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Clearly the position has not changed since 2010, when DCMS told The Guardian newspaper: “It has been successive governments’ policy to maintain a healthy distance from cultural operators and artists: we do not believe in state intervention in these areas.”
Soca News quoted this back to the ministry, and asked: “Are you confident that ‘cultural operators and artists’ are in agreement with DCMS’s hands-off approach?”
Even with five months to think that one through, the Department was not confident enough to give an answer.
Sadly, the petitioners have put the carnival cart before the heritage horse. First, we need a petition, and lots of pressure from “cultural operators and artists” and their supporters, to get the UK to sign up to the UNESCO Convention. Only then can we see about using it to protect the status and future of Notting Hill Carnival.
In the meantime, readers can judge for themselves the value that our government places on intangible cultural heritage.