This year, the world is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of UNESCO. At that time, the U.S. adopted the UNESCO Convention for the “Safeguarding of World Cultural and Natural Heritage,” so that places like the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, and the Grand Canyon could be recognized globally as unique cultural heritage sites in this country.
However, the United States has never adopted the UNESCO Convention for the “Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage” that many nations did when it was first presented in 2003. As a result of our absence in this world convention, unique American art forms and cultural practices, ranging from jazz and blues to baseball and Thanksgiving traditions are not formally being recognized as this country’s unique intangible cultural heritage.
Other participating nations have prepared national inventories, established the list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding, and are busy submitting applications to secure valuable UNESCO recognition.
According to UNESCO, cultural heritage is the complex of monuments, buildings, and archeological sites of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art, or science. From the other point of view, cultural heritage is quite broadly defined as containing all the signs that document the activities and achievements of human beings over time.
Cultural heritage does not relate only to tangible works of art or architecture as part of the built environment, but also to the more intangible aspects of people’s lives, traditions, and customs. The “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts, and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage (UNESCO, 2003).
Intangible assets include traditions, customs, stories, and manifestations of past and continuing cultural practices and collective knowledge. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, provides communities with a sense of identity and continuity.
The particular heritage and collective memory of each locality or community is irreplaceable and an important foundation for development both now and in the future.
U.S. State Department Goodwill Ambassador and renowned jazz performer Herbie Hancock is on a mission to get the U.S. to adopt the Intangible Cultural Heritage convention. In what Mr. Hancock calls “international branding rights,” it is widely believed that the adoption of the convention for intangible cultural heritage will generate significant domestic and international tourism into this country.
What are some American art forms and cultural practices that we should safeguard?