Cultural Identity Through Cultural Preservation at Heart Of UNESCO’s Heritage

Updated on January 18, 2024 by Meg Pier

What is cultural identity? What is the importance of cultural heritage? In this in-depth interview, Cecile Duvelle explains the rationale behind UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage initiative,and how the U.N. agency approaches fostering cultural appreciation and cultural preservation and shares examples of the manifestation of cultural identity ranging from Vietnamese traditions like Ca trù to the cultural practices of the Sanké people of Mali in West Africa. Cecile shares the elements that create a sense of community--the very heart of cultural identity.

Many people are familiar with UNESCO's designation of physical sites around the world as places of "world heritage," locales such as the Pyramids of Egypt and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America, agreed to be of inspiration and value to humanity.

What is perhaps less well known is that in 2003 UNESCO began recognizing items of intangible cultural heritage. In 1999, Cécile Duvelle witnessed the dawn of the movement to elaborate the international Convention to safeguard those practices; she headed up that section for UNESCO from 2008 until her retirement in 2015. Her journey has included an encounter with Pygmies in Central Africa, meetings with high government officials in countries around the world, and seeing the soothing effect of a Papua New Guinea lullaby sung in her Parisian living room. Our conversation touches on areas ranging from fishing rites of West Africa, to the Vietnamese art form of Ca Tru, and the politics of agreeing on items of cultural identity. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Cecile.

Meg: What constitutes an item of “intangible cultural heritage”?

Cecile: Intangible cultural heritage is defined by UNESCO as the practices that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. ICH is transmitted from generation to generation, providing communities with a sense of identity and continuity. ICH is therefore traditional, contemporary and living all at the same time. It is something passed on from the past but is constantly recreated and presently living, imbued with socio-cultural meaning to a community. It is not necessarily beautiful, original, or exceptional but it is always meaningful.

A given cultural expression--for instance, a summer festival--is not necessarily intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage can only be heritage when it is recognized as such by the communities, groups or individuals that create, maintain and transmit it. Without their recognition, nobody else can decide for them that a given expression or practice is their heritage and has a meaning for them.

Five domains, although not exclusive, can be identified as areas of intangible cultural heritage: oral traditions and expressions, including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; traditional craftsmanship.

Meg: What is UNESCO’s role in this area and how did it come about?

Cecile: Founded in 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is the only UN specialized agency with the mandate in culture. UNESCO functions as a laboratory of ideas, setting standards to forge universal agreements on emerging issues.

UNESCO works to protect humanity’s heritage. Its constitution affirms the will of all Member States to ‘develop and to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each others lives.’

An early landmark action was the 1959 international campaign to rescue the Nubian monuments and sites in Egypt at risk of flooding from the Aswan High Dam project. This provided an inspiration for the 1972 Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which deals with monuments, groups of buildings and sites, and so is strongly linked to tangible heritage.

Through decolonization and increasing globalization, many people and countries began reflecting on their cultural identities, and intangible cultural heritage was identified as an essential source of community identities. Between 1999 and 2003, UNESCO organized a number of expert and intergovernmental meetings on the feasibility of creating a new convention, one of which was held in Washington in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institute. Heated debates took place about the approaches best suited to safeguarding this type of heritage, and consensus was finally attained in 2003 when UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A committee, elected by the General Assembly of States Parties to the Convention, carries the principal responsibility of inscribing elements of intangible cultural heritage to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Nominations for inscription are submitted by States Parties to the Convention, and the ICH element being nominated must satisfy specific criteria. In 2009, twelve practices were added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, ranging from the Rite of the Kalyady in Belarus to traditional music of the Tsuur in Mongolia.

Meg: What are some of the reasons elements of intangible cultural become endangered?

Cecile: While reasons for intangible cultural heritage practices becoming endangered are as varied as the intangible heritage expressions themselves, the following general factors could be mentioned: modernization and globalization, rapid social transformation changing traditional ways of living, urbanization leading people to become isolated from communities, making it difficult to continue collective activities; large-scale public or private projects or rapid urban or tourist development projects; destruction caused by changes in the use or ownership of the land; climate/environmental change; the outbreak or the threat of an armed conflict; natural disasters; lack of interest on the part of youth to learn about their intangible cultural heritage; decreasing inter-generational dialogue; introduction of formal school education and, unfortunately, direct or indirect measures from States to eradicate or marginalise some cultural minorities.

Safe-Guarded Cultural Practices From Vietnamese Traditions Like Ca Trù to Fishing Festival of Sanké People of Mali in West Africa

Meg: Can you describe a few specific items that have been determined by UNESCO to be endangered?

Cecile: One example of an item UNESCO identified as endangered is the Sanké mon, a collective fishing rite of the Sanké people of Mali.

Sanké mon is a festive ritual in the town of San in the region of Segou in Mali, western Africa, which is celebrated annually on the second Thursday of the seventh lunar month. The communities of Malinnké, Mabmara and Buwa participate in the collective fishing rite, which commemorates the foundation of the town more than six centuries ago and traditionally marks the beginning of the rainy season.

The rite begins with the sacrifice of roosters, goats and offerings made by village residents to the water spirits of the Sanké lake. The collective fishing then takes place over fifteen hours using large and small mesh fishing nets. It is immediately followed by a masked dance on the public square featuring Buwa dancers from San and neighboring villages who wear traditional costumes and hats decorated with cowrie shells and feathers and perform specific choreography to the rhythms of a variety of drums.

While traditional fishing is a widespread practice in the region, the Sanké mon is special as it brings together different communities and their diaspora to take part in the collective fishing. The Sanké mon rite thus strengthens social cohesion, demonstrating the religious tolerance of the region—the different peoples have their own belief systems--and constitutes a celebration of communal unity through ethnic diversity.

Although Sanké mon collective fishing rite continues to take place every year at the same time, the event is diminishing in intensity. There has been a progressive reduction in the level of interest from the inhabitants of San, combined with a lack of knowledge of the history of the event and its importance for the local economy and social cohesion. Various founding myths have been abandoned, and newer practices have been substituted by the younger generation and strangers. Inadequate attention to the older aspects of Sanké mon means that traditions surrounding the collective fishing rite are now at risk.

Several measures have been or will be taken to safeguard the Sank mon fishing rite.

In 2001, Mali inscribed the collective fishing rite of Sanké mon on its national heritage inventory. The National Directorate for Cultural Heritage annually provides financial support to the town of San to support the organization of Sanké mon festivities.

In July 2008, fifty community representatives, comprising families, custodians of the Sanké mon rite, the village council of San and other notables, requested the establishment of a local management committee to ensure the perpetuation and transmission of Sanké mon.

Future safeguarding measures include the rehabilitation of Sanké lake by cleaning waterways obstructed by the impacts of human settlements; the establishment of a structured management system equipped with materials and supplies to bring together various stakeholders; the creation of a database to compile existing documentation on Sanké mon from libraries and document centres; awareness-raising sessions to inform the populations of San of the importance of safeguarding and transmitting the practices; local radio stations and other media broadcasting information on activities and the importance of conserving and promoting the rite.

Another example of a cultural practice designated as endangered by UNESCO is Ca trù singing of Viet Nam. This art form embodies a range of musical and dance practices, as well as expertise and knowledge of poetry, constituting a sense of identity for Vietnamese communities that is transmitted today by musicians and devotees dedicated to performing, teaching and developing the tradition.

Ca trù groups comprise three performers: a female singer who uses breathing techniques and vibrato to create unique ornamented sounds, while playing the clappers or striking a wooden box, and two instrumentalists who produce the deep tone of a three-stringed lute and the strong sounds of a praise drum. Some Ca trù performances also include dance. The varied forms of Ca trù fulfill different social purposes, including worship singing, singing for entertainment, singing in royal palaces and competitive singing. Ca trù has fifty-six different musical forms or melodies, each of which is called thể cách.

Ongoing wars and insufficient awareness caused Ca trù to fall into disuse during the twentieth century. Although the artists have made great efforts to transmit the old repertoire to younger generations, Ca trù is still under threat of being lost due to the diminishing number and age of practitioners.

Ca trù singing’:©Vietnamese Institute for Musicology, 2006, with the permission of UNESCO

Ca trù has seen a revival of interest in recent years, creating an important base for developing a sustainable Ca trù culture in a modern context. Yet the element’s viability is still at risk due to the small number of musicians with sufficient competence, knowledge and skill to perform and teach Ca trù. There is a lack of financial resources necessary to sustain and develop the form, as well as a loss of traditional performing places, amid rapid economic, social and cultural change.

The proposed safeguarding measures are coherent and wide-ranging, supported by an ambitious and well-funded plan to safeguard Ca trù. Safeguarding efforts are expected to have a significant impact on the sustainability of the practice and transmission of Ca trù singing while relying on the deep knowledge still existing in the participating communities.

Teaching Importance of Cultural Heritage

Meg: What is the role of education in preserving items of intangible cultural heritage?

Cecile: In the realm of intangible cultural heritage, we avoid using the term ‘preservation,’ as it gives the impression of freezing the heritage, in a similar way that cultural objects get put into a box for preservation in a museum. Intangible cultural heritage is a heritage that we receive from our ancestors but it keeps changing and being recreated in response to changing environment. We refer to the term ‘safeguarding’ in the context of intangible cultural heritage since the term accommodates the dynamic nature of this heritage.

The role of education, essential for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, is essentially two-fold. On the one hand, education needs to be interpreted as transmission of knowledge, which is fundamental to the continuation of intangible cultural heritage practices. Every intangible or living heritage has been passed on through some type of ‘education’.

Village Assembly Welcoming Guests - Mar Lodj, Senegal - Credit: WHL Travel.

In the case of oral tradition or traditional craftsmanship, for instance, vast verses or specialized knowledge were often transmitted from a master to disciple through years of apprenticeship. Rituals are often transmitted through people participating in their enactment and learning by participating. Traditional dance and music are also often taught by participation and imitation of master players. Knowledge and practices about nature and the universe are often transmitted to certain people through respecting the culturally coded ethics--who can learn what knowledge and who can transmit the knowledge to whom.

On the other hand, education, in a sense of formal school education, is equally important in terms of raising awareness among students about the importance of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and more broadly of respecting cultural diversity. With the introduction of formal school education all over the world, especially in countries where education used to be conducted informally, many intangible cultural heritage practices came to be considered no longer relevant and seen as backward, belonging to the past. Some intangible cultural heritage practices, when they lose their socio-cultural functions within communities, do disappear.

There are many ways in which intangible cultural heritage does serve communities. For example, providing people with a sense of identity and continuity, thereby maintaining social cohesion broadly; another example would be helping communities to cope with a changing environment by referring to age-old ways of managing natural resources. There exists a wealth of wisdom that this heritage contains and offers to the contemporary world to deal with its current challenges. These challenges include climate change/global warming, intolerance towards certain cultures, natural resource management, and more sustainable ways of living.

In addition to teaching children about the importance of this heritage and its safeguarding, it is also fundamental to integrate intangible cultural heritage into school curricula so as to make school education more culturally relevant to students.

Meg: How do communities play a part in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage?

Cecile: Communities are the first and foremost protagonists in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, because as mentioned above, they are the only ones that can identify and define what their intangible cultural heritage is and ensure its survival into the future. Even though external supports can significantly facilitate the transmission of ICH, if communities stop practicing their ICH, it is deemed to die.

In fact, as a living being, some ICH practices do disappear once they lose their socio-cultural values to the communities. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage does not try to safeguard every single ICH at any cost. What it does is to provide a platform for information exchange and international cooperation so that when communities do want to safeguard their heritage but lack means to do so, they can receive support, be it human or financial.

Meg: Is there an economic impact associated with the loss of an item of intangible cultural heritage?

Cecile: The value of a given intangible cultural heritage practice is defined by the communities themselves, as the ones who have to recognize these manifestations as part of their cultural heritage. This grassroots approach introduces the social value of cultural heritage which may, or may not, be translated into a commercial, economic value.

The social value of intangible heritage does include an economic value. Indeed, the economic value of the intangible heritage for a specific community is the value of the knowledge and skills that are transmitted within that community, as well as the product resulting from those knowledge and skills. Both play a major role in giving the community its sense of identity and continuity and in supporting social cohesion without which development is hardly possible.

ICH has a direct economic value resulting from the consumption of its products by the community itself or by others through trade. There is also an indirect value resulting from the non-formal transmission of knowledge, as well as on the impact it has in other economic sectors. Examples of its direct economic value may be the consumption by the community of traditional pharmacopeia instead of patented medicines and the commercial use of its products, such as the tickets for a performance, trading in crafts or attracting tourists.

Indirect impacts related to the loss of ICH include the possibility of conflict, decreasing quality of health, deterioration of environment, and ultimately loss of cultural diversity, to name but a few. Without ICH practices that help maintain social cohesion within a community, intra or inter community conflicts may occur, leading towards forced migration of some people which may give rise to various socio-political instabilities or violence, in a worst case. Resolving such conflicts would have substantial economic impact on societies.

Losing traditional knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe which had provided communities with wisdom to maintain their health may increase the need for expensive external medical intervention, such as creating more hospitals or providing medicines.

The loss of ICH practices which had helped communities to live in harmony with their environment may result in indiscriminate use of natural resources, leading to natural resource depletion. A damaged environment may oblige communities to move away from it, possibly creating a group of displaced people who become dependent on social welfare provisions by governments.

Negative economic impact associated with the loss of ICH may not be obvious at the first sight, but if we examine more closely socio-cultural functions and values of a given ICH, we may start to realize how essential ICH has been and how imperative it is to safeguard it.

Meg: You are trained as a cultural anthropologist—could you define that line of study, and tell me a little bit about what attracted you to the career?

Cecile: I actually started my studies with courses in philosophy and sociology, and it was during my third year that I headed to anthropology and continued along that path. My initial training in classical literature, studying Latin and Greek, had already marked me by a discovery that learning these "dead" languages had afforded me: the discovery of cultures different from mine, but within which I could recognize a connection, a continuity of social logic. Philosophy is an inner exploration that attempts to find answers to major existential questions. It remains for me a fundamental subject. Sociology complemented it, as it decodes the logic of societies. It is another key to understanding the world in its collective aspects. But it was essentially applied to "Western" societies. Cultural anthropology is a third key: it relates to human cultural systems, and is engaged in the comparative study of different societies. It makes apparent the extreme proximity of human societies in their logic and organization through time and space, beyond their apparent differences. It is a formidable tool against racism and xenophobia.

Meg: I understand your studies included work in Sub-Saharan Africa, on subjects like suburban housing in a Dakar suburb--can you describe that experience?

Cecile: One of the topics on which I had begun to work in France was related to rural housing. I found it interesting to make architecture "talk": through the structure of houses and occupation of land one could almost read the social structure in which they were integrated, guess the lifestyle of its inhabitants.

In Senegal, I had traveled through villages and observed the occupation of space. The structure of polygamy, for example, was part of the space. In every "concession," [Editor: a piece of land used for building the house, including the yard] each housing unit was enclosed by a fence, with several round huts, one per wife, who slept there with her young children. A hut was reserved for the kitchen--or more accurately the storage of utensils, because cooking was done outdoors, in front of this hut. In the center, there was usually a large tree where the family took their meals. I wanted to understand the impact on the traditional family structure of the spontaneous urban habitat--one built by people in the outlying areas of the capital without the help of "professionals" - with its constraints in terms of space and construction materials,

I found that buildings became rectangular because of the materials used, while trying to adapt to the family structure. The large courtyard was preserved as the principal living area, the rooms used primarily for sleeping. One room, isolated from the rest of the building, continued to serve as a storeroom for cooking utensils. But the head of the polygamous family had installed his second wife in another house and moved alternately from one house to another. The spatial constraints affected traditional social functioning, but urbanization undoubtedly made the traditional family structure evolve, which gradually adapted to new social demands. Polygamy is, in traditional societies, a system that strengthens the agricultural labor force; in an urban milieu, polygamy is more an outward sign of wealth, given the high costs to the husband of maintaining several homes.

For this study, I spent several months in a concession in the suburbs of Dakar. I learned a great deal more than I was looking for. I forged friendships with many people, especially women, with whom I developed incredible relationships of complicity (that led me, later, to work on polygamy). We understood ourselves on the topic of gender relations; I felt very near them in what they were experiencing, despite the differences of our situations. And I continue to make excellent Senegalese recipes regularly!

Meg: Your academic work also included three years studying the role of women in development in Gabon. Can you give a description of your time there and the nature of the work?

Cecile: I lived in Gabon from 1977 to 1979, a period when this small central African country was very prosperous, largely because of its oil wealth. Gabon had a population at the time of less than one million inhabitants for an area of less than 300 000 km, and was a little “Eldorado,” with one of the continent’s highest incomes per capita mainly thanks to the oil exploitation. But this wealth was very theoretical. Apart from some luxurious buildings in the capital and a few paved roads, the country was like any other developing nation, with its share of poverty and social disparities, and a minority of people holding the vast majority of wealth.

I wanted to address this unusual situation and in particular the role of women in the economy. They appeared in the statistics as "unemployed" for the majority, while I could see they were, in fact, tireless workers. At the market or on the street, it was mainly women who were active. I discovered the "informal" economy that largely runs the country and allows people to live their daily lives. Again, the traditional structure, where men are in charge of hunting and women of subsistence farming and raising children, applied. But the urban environment was not conducive to hunting. Women, not having land to grow the food needed to feed the family, engaged in a multitude of income-generating activities, mostly in petty trading, while men often remained unemployed, giving themselves to drink and finding themselves dependent on their wife or wives. The figure of the family head was badly shaken, with the share of violence that it could generate When the man is losing the role a chief of the family, the hunter, the one who brings food, he feels diminished and become more violent to affirm in another way his role as chief.

One of my most extraordinary memories is that of three women with the same unemployed and violent husband whom I ended up asking: "But how does it benefit you to have such a husband?” And they replied with one voice: "Everybody knows that we are married and men don’t bother us!" I thought about it often afterwards.

Another story amused me a lot. Three wives divorced their husband, together, finding him too "incompetent,” and found another husband--who married all three. They got along well and would not for the world want to be separated! When I tried to understand, with my romantic vision of marriage and of love, how they could accommodate such a situation of "sharing," they laughed and asked me how I could accept living with a double workday (paid work and domestic work), being "alone" to do all this, in addition to having to share my income with my husband. They found this unfair treatment incredible- and would not want to exchange their fate with mine!

Meg: I understand you also worked as coordinator of the Encyclopedia of African Law, a 10-volume series reviewing the legal framework of the seventeen French-speaking African countries since their independence. Can you describe the nature of this work?

Cecile: This publication was the first comprehensive study of the legislative systems of seventeen Francophone African countries after their independence. I took up the role of assistant editor, coordinating the work of over 200 authors. Published in 1982, it explores such diverse aspects as the relationship between the state and the law; budgetary, financial, tax and customs systems; the judiciary; the procedures and means of execution; the law of property, individuals and families; corporate law; labor relations and criminal law.

Cécile Duvelle participating in the Moussem of Tan-Tan, an annual gathering of nomadic peoples of the Sahara in southwest morocco.

The project helped to highlight how the legal systems that were inherited from colonial powers (France and Belgium) were adapted in these countries after independence. It is striking to note the extent to which the original systems were kept almost in their integrity, although they are very different from the traditional systems. In particular, the notion of individual responsibility, which is at the heart of the Western conception of law, is often absent from traditional African systems, which recognize more the notion of collectivity, group, ethnic belonging.

During the documentation work that I did while editing this series, I read many Official Journals of the seventeen countries. One day I stumbled upon a decision of the Court of Special Appeal, which concluded the innocence of a man who at dawn shot a man on the edge of some woods, whom he had mistaken for an antelope. In making its decision, the Court had recognized that the antelope was the totem animal of the man shot and it is well known that the transformation into an animal totem occurs at night during sleep. The man accused therefore had killed an antelope, and was not guilty of murder.

A totem animal is one that protects you. It is a belief, a conviction, it is their culture and it is normal for them to think that way. They are not lying; they are convinced that the man is not guilty, no matter what the formal law. Culture is stronger than any other rule, it takes over any other consideration.

Meg: After joining UNESCO, you were very involved in the development of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Could you explain the different parties involved, and your role, as well as what you learned in the process?

Cecile: The development of an international convention is a vast undertaking. A convention is a legal instrument that is adopted at the international level, in a forum like the U.N. or UNESCO, and that is elaborated or voted by all or the majority of the countries of the world. From an idea or an intention, a legal text has to be created on which ideally 193 UNESCO Member States are in agreement. The devil is in the details, one can imagine the difficulty! The process is lengthy, often six years, between the time the General Conference requests the study of a particular issue, and the final adoption of the text.

In November 1999, I witnessed the birth of the idea and the development of this instrument through all its stages. Numerous meetings of experts and of all Member States of UNESCO had to be organized to agree on even the definition of intangible cultural heritage.

For the 2003 Convention, at the outset, the challenge was mainly to compensate the strong "under-representation" of developing countries in the prestigious World Heritage List, which deals with physical sites. The rich countries of the "North" were pretty skeptical at first about this vague notion, which seemed to risk almost all the cultural events being recognized as intangible heritage so long as a community so decides. Thus there was a lot of "North-South" tension, which was defused as we advanced with the drafting, since all countries found that intangible heritage was a powerful reality in all countries, whatever their level of development. The Convention was adopted almost unanimously, without a vote against.

Meg: I understand that you accompanied UNESCO’s Director-General in his official visits to more than eighty countries. Having experienced so many different cultures, what have been some of your most significant insights about human nature and cultural expression?

Cecile: I have traveled extensively with the Director-General, on average twice a month, visiting three countries successively almost every time. I especially accompanied him in Latin America and Africa, but also sometimes in Asia or in Europe. One of the things that really struck me was the protocol. Each country has its own protocol, which is very different from country to country.

I remember a country in Eastern Europe where we had to practice the positioning and greeting to the President before the meeting with a cross on the carpet so we knew where we each had to stand. When the President arrived, he was very natural and warm, and we forgot this formality immediately. In Central America, we came to the presidency without any security barrier filtering us, we parked outside the building into which people seemed to enter freely, and the President welcomed us in the lobby among all those who visited the building. Two illustrative extremes of cultural diversity!

We had the opportunity to attend outstanding cultural events, and visit many World Heritage sites. But the thing that struck me the most was the great similarity, despite their differences, of all these people met, similarity in the reception, the desire for dialogue and exchange, the desire to be understood and appreciated. It gives me the feeling that mankind is one big family, with which it is very easy to identify, even when appearances seem so different.

Meg: I believe you are a proponent that recognition of cultural differences can promote international co-operation—can you explain that?

Cecile: Yes, to recognize cultural diversity is to acknowledge our fraternity, to know how to recognize oneself in the Other.

I remember an amazing experience where two photographers, one from the Central part of France, one from Mongolia, had to document the pastoralism traditions that were observed in the two countries, the Mongolian documenting French pastoralism, the French doing the same in Mongolia. They shared their work which resulted in a very interesting exhibition and book. The French captured essentially the men on their horses travelling in immense territories, whereas the Mongolian was amazed by the fact that the French shepherds were using motorbike to lead their herd, and took a lot of pictures of them. What one could realize in looking the exhibition is that there are not so many differences between a Mongolian and a French shepherd, except maybe their externalities--a horse or a motorbike. The real job, the relation with the animal, the know-how, are incredibly similar.

Mongolian horse roping - Credit: Bernd Thaller

When one succeeds in acknowledging this fraternity, one is inevitably driven to cooperate, because we cannot live in a family without sharing and helping each other. Respect for cultural diversity in all its manifestations, without any notion of hierarchy or value judgments, allows each community to feel respected and respectable and helps one feel confident to participate on an equal basis in the common destiny of humanity.

The tendency to nationalism is often a reaction to a threat, real or perceived. Each culture brings its contribution to development and progress, each culture evolves in response to its environment and its history, and stigmatization of certain expressions or cultural events are often the result of ignorance and lack of understanding of their true meaning. Great progress and an easing of many conflicts will be acquired when we are better able to truly understand and respect each other.

Meg: I imagine your work in the realm of intangible cultural heritage has involved heart-breaking moments, and experiences of great hope. Could you share an instance of each?

Cecile: There are many times when I have been very pleased to have the privilege of working in this field, and serve the international community through UNESCO. I still have a vivid memory of my trip to Central African Republic, where we visited a community of Aka Pygmies. We had to walk a little way in the forest to meet them, because their camps are never installed near a road or a carriage way. They danced and sang in an extraordinary fashion, one man especially imitating the sound of animals and their movements to attract and capture them.

A few years later, I was in Algiers for the Pan-African Festival of culture, and I knew that some of the Pygmies had come to attend the Festival. I immediately wanted to meet them, and they recognized me. They were extremely kind to me, laughing and enjoying seeing me again after so many years, and I was also surprised to reunite with what seemed like classmates! Our differences did not exist at that time, and it gives a feeling of exhilaration and eternity.

There were also difficult moments when we felt powerless. Political struggles between States where national interests take priority over concern for the safeguarding of the intangible heritage of humanity. Politics are often cold and implacable, and as lovers of culture we are sometimes shocked by different kinds of logic. But so it is. Only the international community can make things happen. We do not live in a dream world but in the real world, where the struggle for individual interests are often strong. But we must consider every drop of water we pour into the ocean as positive.

Meg: Can you offer any observations about the role of cultural intangibles on emotional intangibles, such as a sense of belonging, security, pride, self-esteem?

Cecile in Galapagos

Cecile: I mentioned earlier, the intangible heritage has an essentially subjective value, a value for those who practice it and for whom there is a strong cultural base. Some expressions or manifestations are nothing spectacular or unusual, but they weld a community and give it a sense of identity and continuity necessary for its self-esteem and pride as a community. A style of knitting, a simple lullaby, a tradition associated with grape harvesting will make people immediately recognize themselves as having a common cultural identity. The value of their expression thus becomes objective, in that it allows communities to live and practice their intangible heritage, transmitting it to future generations, fueling the cultural diversity that is essential to the well-being and future of all mankind.

I remember organizing an evening at home with several friends, including a new colleague from Papua New Guinea; he had trouble adjusting to the climate of Paris and small city apartments. My brother, who had lived several years in Papua New Guinea, was also there, and they exchanged a few words, trying to identify common acquaintances. Then my brother found a guitar in a corner and began to play a lullaby he had learned in Papua New Guinea. Our colleague, stunned at first, began to break down and started to shed tears while singing the melody softly. He suddenly felt all his "strangeness" in the Parisian environment, but also the brotherhood between a Frenchman and a Papuan, through a shared melody.

For more information on UNESCO

UNESCO Culture Sector - Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage

All images are the copyright of UNESCO and used with the permission of UNESCO unless otherwise noted.

Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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