1982: Mondiacult (Mexico)

The cycle of conferences that followed the Venice meeting was rounded off by the World Conference on Cultural Policies in Mexico City in 1982, known as Mondiacult. The Conference was attended by 960 participants from 126 States out of the 158 Member States UNESCO had at the time. The success of the 1972 Convention and the importance attached to the protection of immovable cultural and natural properties had overshadowed the significance of other forms of heritage and of cultural production as means of development. The purpose of the conference was to review knowledge and experience gained on cultural policies and practices since the Venice conference in 1970, to promote research about the fundamental problems of culture in the contemporary world, to formulate new guidelines to promote cultural development in general development projects and to facilitate international cultural cooperation.

The conference unanimously rejected any hierarchy between cultures, since nothing could justify discrimination between ‘superior cultures and inferior cultures’, and reaffirmed the duty of each to respect all cultures. It stressed that cultural identity was the defence of traditions, of history and of the moral, spiritual and ethical values handed down by past generations. It suggested that present and future cultural practices were just as valuable as past ones and emphasized that both governments and communities should participate in the development of cultural policies. Therefore, governmental institutions as well as civil society should participate in the development of cultural policies.

One of the main achievements of the Conference was its redefinition of culture. It stated that heritage now also covered all the values of culture as expressed in everyday life, and growing importance was being attached to activities calculated to sustain the ways of life and forms of expression by which such values were conveyed. The Conference remarked that the attention now being given to the preservation of the ‘intangible heritage’ may be regarded as one of the most constructive developments of the past decade. It was one of the first times that the term ‘intangible heritage’ was officially used.

The Conference, besides redefining the concept of culture (by including in its definition not only arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs), approved in the Mexico City Declaration on Cultural Policies a new definition of cultural heritage which included both tangible and intangible works through which the creativity of people finds expression: languages, rites, beliefs, historic places and monuments, literature, works of art, archives and libraries. The Mexico Declaration furthermore stated that every culture represents a unique and irreplaceable body of values since each people’s traditions and forms of expression are its most effective means of demonstrating its presence in the world. In this sense, it also remarked that cultural identity and cultural diversity are inseparable and that the recognition of the presence of a variety of cultural identities wherevervarious traditions exist side by side constitutes the very essence of cultural pluralism.

The Conference asked UNESCO to not only develop its programme for the preservation of the cultural heritage constituted by monuments and historical sites, but also its programme and activities for the safeguarding and study of the intangible cultural heritage, particularly oral traditions. These activities were to take place at bilateral, sub-regional, regional and multinational levels and were to be based on recognition of the universality, diversity and absolute dignity of peoples and of cultures. While recognizing the importance of the cultural heritage of minorities within States, the Conference also emphasized that with regard to cultural and spiritual values and traditions, the cultures of the South could do much to revitalize the cultures of the rest of the world.

The Conference invited Member States and international organizations working in the field of culture to expand their heritage protection policies to cover the whole body of cultural traditions, which is not limited to its artistic heritage but comprises the whole of past heritage expressions, including folk arts and folklore, oral traditions and cultural practices. It also considered that the preservation and development of a people’s traditional culture constitutes an essential part of any programme aimed at affirming its cultural identity and that folklore, as a fundamental component of a nation’s heritage, should also take in such aspects as languages, oral tradition, beliefs, celebrations, dietary habits, medicine, technology, etc., and therefore recommended that Member States accord the same recognition to non-recognized aspects of cultural traditions as to historic or artistic goods, and provide technical and financial support for activities aimed at their preservation, promotion and dissemination.

Two years after the Mondiacult Conference, in 1984, a meeting was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to discuss the preservation and development of handicrafts in the modern world. Then, on the basis of the Model Provisions for National Laws on the Protection of Expressions of Folklore against Illicit Exploitation and Other Prejudicial Actions adopted in Tunis, a draft treaty was prepared by UNESCO and WIPO in 1984, which did not come into force. The legal protection of folklore would have to wait another five years. Some activities in the field of intangible cultural heritage were nevertheless taken, such as the preparation of a book on Arctic languages and the launch, in Mali, of an experimental project combining tradition and cultural innovation in rural development in 1987. The year before this, in 1986, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recommended that the UN General Assembly take a decision on the question of the proclamation of a world decade for cultural development, based on the draft plan of action submitted by the Director-General of UNESCO.

1989: Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore

Some elements of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World

In 1989 an international meeting of experts was held in Hammamet, Tunisia on the development of a Ten-Year Plan for the development of crafts in the world for the period 1990 to 1999. In the same year, that is seven years after Mondiacult, the General Conference adopted the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore, which was the first legal instrument of its kind oriented towards the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and therefore reflecting the wishes which had been expressed in the Mondiacult Conference. In order to promote the Recommendation over the following years, UNESCO organized training courses, gave assistance for the drafting of plans for the safeguarding, revitalization and dissemination of the intangible cultural heritage of minority and indigenous groups, and for the organization of a number of festivals of traditional cultures. A network of folklore activities was established; CDs of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World were published, as were a handbook for Collecting musical heritage, the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, the Methodological manual on the protection of traditional culture and folklore against inappropriate commercial exploitation, and the document ‘Ethics and Traditional Culture’. Eight regional seminars on the implementation of the 1989 Recommendation were organized but did not lead to long-lasting results.

First Edition of the Atlas, 1996
out of print

However, the Recommendation itself raised awareness of the need to devote special attention to intangible cultural heritage related domains. In 1990, the UNESCO Crafts Prize was awarded for the first time at an International Crafts Fair held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and the International Fund for the Promotion of Culture launched a pilot project for safeguarding the corn-mill songs of Haharashtra, India, aimed at demonstrating that supposedly extinct forms of oral tradition can be revived and even be given fresh cultural impetus. Following the success of the project at local level, it was extended to the whole of the state of Maharashtra. In 1992, at an international meeting in Jog Jakarta, Indonesia, a new UNESCO video collection of the performing arts was launched under the title ‘Traditional Dance, Theatre and Music of the World’. In November the same year, a regional seminar on The Cultural Dimension of Development in Africa: Decision-making, Participation, Enterprises, was jointly organized by UNESCO, the World Bank and UNICEF, in cooperation with the Ivorian Ministry of Culture, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. In 1993 a project called UNESCO Red Book of Languages in Danger of Disappearing was launched which was subsequently followed by the set up of a database on this issue by Tokyo University in 1995. In 1993, the Living Human Treasures system was launched, following a proposal by Korea at the 142nd session of the Executive Board.

1996: Report “Our Creative Diversity”

In 1991, the General Conference had adopted a resolution requesting the Director-General to establish, in conjunction with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, an independent World Commission on Culture and Development. This commission would be responsible for drawing up a report on ‘Culture and Development’, and for putting forward a set of proposals concerning urgent and long-term activities to meet cultural needs in the context of socioeconomic development. The World Commission was created in December 1992, presided by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former Secretary General of the United Nations.

This report, called Our Creative Diversity (English), highlighted the wealth of tangible and intangible heritage that has been transmitted from generation to generation. It recognized that this heritage is embodied in the collective memory of communities across the world and that it reinforces their sense of identity in times of uncertainty. While following UNESCO’s traditional line concerning the need of safeguarding culture and cultural diversity, it also highlighted that physical objects (monuments, works of art, handicrafts
were the main beneficiaries of the policies for preserving cultural heritage. It noted that the very fragile intangible cultural heritage did not receive the same attention, and recalled that nonphysical remains such as place names or local traditions are also part of the cultural heritage.

The Commission also stressed the importance of heritage preservation policies as part of economic development. Considering that intangible cultural heritage had not yet been taken sufficiently into account, the experts recalled that the heritage in all its aspects is still not being used as broadly and effectively as it might be, nor as sensitively managed as it should be. The Commission underlined that the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage as a legal instrument that is only applicable to tangible heritage, reflects the concern related to a kind of heritage which is highly valued in developed countries but not appropriate for the kinds of heritage most common in regions where cultural energies have been concentrated in other forms of expression such as artefacts, dance or oral traditions. Subsequently, the experts called for the development of other forms of recognition to match the true range and wealth of heritage found across the world.

Our Creative Diversity also elaborated on the problems encountered in safeguarding heritage from political, ethic and monetary points of view. It warned against political conjuring capable of transforming the complexities of material cultural evidence into simplified messages about cultural identity. Such messages tend to concentrate exclusively on highly symbolic objects at the expense of popular forms or cultural expression or of historical truth. From an ethical point of view, anthropological studies spill over into less specialized categories as tourists interested in ‘ethnic arts’ in general contribute to an increasingly artificial demand for dramatizations and ritual enactments of cultural traditions, which are often celebrated out of context in the form of dress, music, dance and handicrafts. Concerning the monetary implications of recognizing intellectual property rights to specific manifestations of the intangible cultural heritage, the Commission presented four linked issues, or risks, to be taken into account:

  1. authentication, concerning the regulation of replication of traditional craft;
  2. expropriation, concerning the removal of valuable artefacts and documents from their place of origin;
  3. compensation, concerning the fact that individuals or communities at the source of folk items are not compensated;
  4. the fear of commodification, which will have a disruptive impact on folkculture itself.

The report also highlighted problems related to the recognition of intellectual property rights, and proposed that the notion of ‘intellectual property’ might not be the right concept to be used when dealing with living creative traditions. Instead it launched the idea of developing a new concept based on ideas inherent in traditional rules. The report also discussed problems related to knowing what cultural heritage might be saved and to deciding what should be saved, as very few countries had inventories of their cultural patrimonies which would allow one to establish some order of priority – and selectivity.

1997: Proclamation of Masterpieces and launching of studies on a standard-setting instrument

The year following the publication of Our Creative Diversity, after a series of regional forums on the protection of folklore, jointly organized by UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization, and an Intergovernmental Conference on African Language Policies, the Director-General of UNESCO put forward two parallel actions: launching the programme of the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, which represented a major step set towards raising awareness on a worldwide scale on the need of safeguarding such form of heritage, and conducting a study on the possibility to develop a standard-setting instrument for the protection of traditional culture and folklore.

The aim of the Proclamation was to raise awareness of the importance of intangible heritage by establishing a new form of international distinction. In 2001, 2003, and 2005, 90 elements were proclaimed Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, creating a worldwide movement for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.