Notting Hill Carnival Monday 2023. Photo Credit: Peter Hogan

UK government hands carnival creatives an intangible Christmas present

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It’s taken 20 years, but the UK is belatedly about to join the 182 civilised nations of the world that care enough about their culture to wish to safeguard it for posterity.

On 23 December, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced that the UK would ratify UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said:

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By ratifying this Convention, we will be able to celebrate treasured traditions from every corner of the UK, support the people who practise them, and ensure they are passed down for future generations to enjoy.

What is intangible cultural heritage (ICH)?

‘Intangible’ culture refers to practices such as crafts, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals, oral traditions and “knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe”. It is distinct from what we normally think of as ‘heritage’ – old castles, objects in museums, natural landscapes etc, which are already well protected by the likes of English Heritage.

However, although governments have trumpeted Britain’s 33 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they have been far less concerned about the country’s disappearing crafts, struggling festivals and vanishing traditions – until now.

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Back in July 2016, Soca News reported on a change.org petition that called for Notting Hill Carnival to be added to UNESCO’s global register of ICH. However, as the UK had not ratified the Convention, that was clearly going to be impossible.

Exactly why the DCMS set its face against ratification is an enduring mystery. Jackie Shirley, in the Ministerial Support Team, told Soca News in October 2015:

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.

Some speculate that DCMS’s past opposition to recognition of cultural traditions and practices is because most have working class or rural origins, which are accorded low status by the urban elite who tend to dominate government and arts and heritage bodies. Intangible culture is perhaps harder to monetise than physical objects that can be ring-fenced and ticketed.

The reason for DCMS’s surprise about-turn is equally unexplained, but it has been welcomed by, among others, the charity Heritage Crafts, which compiles the important Red List of Endangered Crafts.

Why is it important?

Just as heritage listing or designation as a World Heritage Site provides both recognition and some level of protection for a physical object, building or landscape, so inscription on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (https://ich.unesco.org/en/lists) affords the same for cultural practices. Among those added to the list at this month’s ICH Conference in Botswana are the Rotterdam Summer Carnival, Bahamas Junkanoo and traditional wooden boatbuilding in Carriacou and Petite Martinique. International funding is available to assist listed items, especially those that are in danger of disappearing. Listed status gives the event or activity a much higher global profile, attracting tourists to a festival, for example, and unlocking private sponsorship or state funding. There’s a strong incentive for the UK to submit items for listing.

But there’s a catch. The DCMS has already stated: “…we will not focus on nominating items of Intangible Cultural Heritage from the UK to this list, at least for the first few years following ratification”. Instead, DCMS will do its own thing by creating a separate Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in the UK. Initially, at least, it looks as though Britain will be a semi-detached member of the global ICH community.

The DCMS backgrounder on its website explained:

Judging which elements are more valuable or important than others is neither desirable or beneficial… any small number of items selected to be considered for the UNESCO list would be inherently unrepresentative of the wider Intangible Cultural Heritage across the UK.

Given that all the other signatories seem to have no difficulty choosing one or two items a year to submit to UNESCO’s ICH committee, it is hard to see why the UK, uniquely, should find this so problematic. By refusing to ‘play by the rules’, the DCMS risks undermining the benefits of signing up to the Convention.

Consultation – have your say

On the day the ratification plan was announced, DCMS opened a public consultation on how the UK’s intangible cultural heritage project should be handled. Later, we will be asked which types of ICH should be formally recognised under this scheme.

Soca News encourages all readers to participate. There is quite a lot of preliminary text, but we have summarised the main points here and you don’t have to answer all 10 questions. You can find the online questionnaire here gov.uk, you can also download it in Word and email your responses to IntangibleCulturalHeritage@dcms.gov.uk. If you have problems filling in the survey, email: ICH@dcms.gov.uk.

It is vital that the government hears our voices. Deadline is the end of February.

UNESCO insists:

Intangible Cultural Heritage can only be heritage when it is recognised as such by the communities, groups or individuals who create, maintain and transmit it – without their recognition, nobody else can decide for them that a given expression or practice is their heritage.

The message is clear: if you’re a practitioner, you need to speak up for your art, craft or festival tradition – do not rely on others to do it for you. DCMS admits that “community” is not defined, but Soca News believes that a masquerader or mas-maker has as much right to make their views known as the designer or band-leader, for example – you are an active member of that “heritage community”.

Some points to remember:

  • ICH has to be a practice or a tradition, not a physical thing like food
  • It doesn’t have to be ancient – contemporary rural and urban practices in which diverse cultural groups take part (eg Caribbean-style carnivals in the UK) are valid too
  • These activities should be currently practised and able to be passed from one generation to another (for example, wire-bending or steelpan tuning)
  • ICH doesn’t have to be exclusive to a single place (just because calypso is practised in the Caribbean, that doesn’t prevent it being included as British ICH as well)
  • The UK ICH Inventory will also cover British territories and Crown dependencies such as Anguilla, Bermuda, BVI, Cayman Islands and Turks & Caicos
  • Q10 Other comments gives you free space to add your (constructive) ideas.

And if you disagree with any of the above, the survey is the place to make your case.

Soca News urges readers to seize this chance to determine how the UK treats our culture and heritage in the decades to come. Our silence will allow the dead hand of the arts elites to shape our future.

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