This blog on the inaugural lecture by Professor Máiréad Nic Craith, given at Heriot-Watt University on 29 May 2013, was first posted on the website of the Built Environment Forum Scotland on 4 June 2013.
The appointment of Professor Máiréad Nic Craith to a chair in the School of Management and Languages promises to add stimulus and intellectual depth to Edinburgh’s heritage community. She focused on the International Convention on Intangible Heritage, which covers things like languages, cultures and cultural practices. Her argument was that Scotland is rich in this type of heritage, and that the UK government should sign up to the Convention, which so far it has declined to do.
What is “heritage”?
Professor Nic Craith began by discussing the concept of heritage as expressed through UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. She located this meaning of heritage within a geography and cultural perspective. In global terms, the idea that heritage is defined primarily by buildings, monuments and archaeological sites is a very western way of thinking. This meaning of heritage sits comfortably within European traditions. It was this interpretation of heritage that dominated in 1972 when the World Heritage Convention was drafted and adopted internationally. Not surprisingly the list of World Heritage Sites, though it has grown so much since the 1970s, still reflects this understanding of heritage. Indeed the very success of this global system has legitimised and authorised this way of thinking, so that across many very different parts of the world heritage has come to be equated with sites and physical entities that are deemed to be “outstanding” and embody the idea of “permanence”.
It is no coincidence then that some European countries score very highly on this measure of heritage. For example, Spain has 44 World Heritage sites, Italy has even more. However, China, a far larger country, can only claim 43 while the United Arab Emirates has only one. World Heritage status depends not only on the intrinsic qualities of the site itself, but also on the approach to managing the site. Seeking designation is also a time-consuming process. These barriers will certainly influence the listings. However, as Professor Nic Craith noted, there are also different cultural approaches that also come into play. In Japan and other part of the east, for example, the approach to conservation is to preserve the spirit of the place rather than the original physical elements that made it special. Thus a building may be regularly reconstructed, using traditional materials and practices, rather than preserved in its original state for all time (or at least as long as possible).
Intangible cultural heritage
The notion of “intangible cultural heritage” encompasses oral traditions and expressions; traditional craftsmanship; the performing arts; social practices, rituals and festivals; and knowledge and practices about nature and the universe. It was adopted internationally as a Convention in 2003, though the UK is one of a number of countries that has declined to sign up to this document.
One significant difference between the conventions of 1972 and 2003 is that the former prioritises the notion of outstanding quality, whereas the latter is concerned with “representative list” of examples of culture. This difference further emphasises the less hierarchical approach that underpins intangible cultural heritage. Ther is no attempt to elevate one cultural tradition above any other.
Professor Nic Craith argued that Scotland has rich intangible cultural heritages. A team at Napier University has compiled an inventory (https://www.napier.ac.uk/research-and-innovation/research-search/projects/online-inventory-of-ich-in-scotland) . Professor Nic Craith explored some of the implications of this less traditional approach to the idea of heritage. It implies the need for a partnership relation between the communities that are the source of the intangible cultural heritage and the experts who are codifying it and attempting to conserve it. This contrasts with the more hierarchical, expert-led approach to built environment heritage.
She also stressed that cultural heritage needs to be used in an inclusive manner. For example, migrants’ culture is a legitimate component – that enriches rather than dilutes other aspects of cultural heritage. Heritage is a contemporary resource that is being constantly re-created. The idea of intangible cultural heritage poses new challenges to museums and universities. How can museums help communities conserve their traditions? Universities need to grasp the potential of heritage as a cross-cutting and holistic theme. For example, heritage knowledge about nature and the universe includes work of thinkers and innovators such as Watt, Geddes or Muir.
The professor made reference to the proposed merger of Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, when discussing the implications for cultural infrastructure. She argued that we need a “cohesive strategy for the sector and a holistic approach”.
What kind of Scotland?
Another concern was about ownership and commodification. Whose heritage is it, and how can the communities of origin get the benefits from its economic potential? Linked concerns were for equality in terms of access to the culture and in the recognition of the role of women as bearers and carers of heritage cultures. Fundamentally, the question she posed is “what kind of Scotland are we promoting through our uses of heritage?”