Many existing inventorying systems and almost all older inventories were not created with safeguarding in mind, as understood in the 2003 Convention. Some of them were designed by researchers to meet their own needs. Moreover, some old inventories are particularly problematic as they may have been produced under colonial conditions or as part of nation-building exercises.

Comprehensiveness and extent of information

Both Article 11 (b) and Article 12 of the Convention imply that the totality of the intangible cultural heritage in a country should be covered, since they refer to the intangible heritage present in the territory of the State Party. Inventories should therefore be as comprehensive and complete as possible. However, in many cases, this may prove an almost impossible task. Inventories can never be completed or fully updated because of the immense scope of the heritage covered by the Convention and the fact that intangible cultural heritage is constantly changing and evolving.

Considering the amount of intangible heritage to be identified and listed, some priorities might need to be set. In this case, those elements which are recognized by the communities or by their practitioners as particularly important for their identity or as being particularly representative of their intangible cultural heritage might be inventoried first. The role of creating inventories as a safeguarding measure should not be forgotten. Therefore, where possible, the viability of inventoried elements should be indicated and threats to their survival outlined. This is for instance the case of inventories in Brazil and Colombia. In Bhutan, Bulgaria and Lithuania the risk of disappearance is used as a criterion for inclusion in the inventory.

In order to reach as quickly as possible a certain degree of representativeness in the inventories, States may wish to start drawing up inventories by providing relatively brief information. Some elements might benefit from greater attention than others, but it is advisable as far as possible to present each element according to the same template and to refer to detailed information available elsewhere rather than include it within the inventory.

Regularly updated

Inventories must be regularly updated, as stated in Article 12 of the Convention. This is vital due to the fact that intangible cultural heritage constantly evolves and threats to its viability can emerge very rapidly. Many national inventories already contain elements that no longer exist while others include information on practices that have substantially changed. States Parties are obliged to periodically provide relevant information on their inventories, including information on the process of regular updating.


The Convention explicitly leaves the choice of whether to draft one or several inventories to the States Parties, but remains silent about parameters for defining the scope of each of the inventories in the case of a multiplex system. One can think of discrete inventories for different domains of intangible cultural heritage, different communities, different regions, or for different subjects of federal States. Whoever the actors involved in preparing the inventories or parts of them are, at the end of the day it is the States, i.e. the States Parties to the Convention, who are responsible for the design and implementation of their inventories.

While States Parties may be encouraged when drawing up inventories to follow the definition of intangible cultural heritage as developed for the Convention, they are not obliged to do so, particularly as inventories may be drawn up in a manner best suited to the circumstances of the State Party in question. However, if a State Party proposes an element for inscription on the Representative List or Urgent Safeguarding List or wishes to request financial assistance for the element’s safeguarding, it will have to demonstrate that it meets the definition of intangible cultural heritage as laid out in Article 2 of the Convention.

Domains and categories

Most inventories will include a system of classifying the intangible cultural heritage. One place to begin would be the domains listed in Article 2.2 of the Convention: oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practice about nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship. As already noted, the Convention makes it clear that these domains are not comprehensive, and any system of classification is only a tool for helping to organize the information within an inventory.

Some inventory systems, like those in Cape Verde, Mauritius and South Africa, more or less follow the domains laid out in the 2003 Convention. In other States Parties, there is a great deal of variation: some, especially in Africa and Latin America, present languages as intangible cultural heritage in their own right and not just as a ‘vehicle’ of it, and others explicitly mention ‘music and dance’ rather than the term ‘performing arts’; still others consider music separately from dance, and so on.

However, numerous categories in national inventories can be easily accommodated under one or more of the domains outlined in the Convention: ‘traditional medicine‘ and ‘indigenous knowledge systems‘ might be classified under ‘knowledge about nature‘ and such categories as ‘games‘ or ‘play‘ and ‘social organization‘, under the domain of ‘social practices‘. Themes such as ‘mythology‘ and names of places, objects or animals could be accommodated under ‘oral expressions‘ and some religious ceremonies and pilgrimages, under ‘rituals‘ or ‘festive events‘. Other categories such as ‘memories and beliefs’, ‘genealogical information’ or ‘culinary traditions’ also find their place in one or more of the domains presented in Article 2 of the Convention.

Divergence concerning domains often reflects the different focuses of communities’ intangible cultural heritage in different parts of the world, and this is perfectly consistent with the Convention’s insistence that each State should draw up its inventories in a manner geared to its own situation. Algeria and Haiti, for example, have separate categories for particular religious practices.

Intangible and tangible

Some inventorying systems are not limited to elements of the intangible cultural heritage. The Lithuanian system, for instance, integrates tangible elements associated to practices of intangible cultural heritage, to the traditions’ bearers or to archives, as well as several elements that are no longer practised. On the other hand, in Belgium, there are plans to include elements of cyber culture and virtual practices in the classificatory system of intangible cultural heritage.

Native and/or immigrant ICH

Another major difference between States is that some limit themselves to inventorying indigenous or native intangible cultural heritage while others – Belgium and the USA, for instance – also take into account the intangible cultural heritage of immigrant communities. Many multicultural States do not restrict themselves to the expressions and practices of the most widespread culture but rather undertake, from the start, to consider the intangible cultural heritage of minority groups.


There is also a huge variation in the amount of documentation and the degree of detail provided in inventories. It seems not physically or financially feasible to provide detailed information about all the intangible cultural heritage manifestations present in countries with a tremendous variety of intangible cultural heritage. About half of the systems in use today present extensive documentation, while others are less exhaustive in providing information about listed elements. Some take the form of catalogues or registers, while others present information as a series of encyclopaedia-like entries. In Brazil, a system is used that incorporates both approaches. There is a national level of elements that have been included in a ‘Registry’ and another level with elements included in an ‘Inventory’. On a national level, extensive documentation is provided for both of these categories, while in the federal states inventories are being created without this weight of documentation.

Property rights

In most countries there are no legal provisions to protect the property rights of the communities, groups of practitioners and tradition bearers over their traditional cultural and social practices and expressions. This may mean that caution is necessary when dealing with easily accessible information with possible commercial applications. Without appropriate legal protections, outsiders may use and take commercial advantage of information such as traditional medical knowledge, knowledge of natural resources, and of music and oral traditions. Since communities should give their free, prior and informed consent before their heritage is inventoried, they can restrict how much information they wish to provide – or none – about elements of their intangible cultural heritage. Communities may not always be aware of the potential value of their heritage to others, so those responsible for the inventorying should be sensitive not to include information that would violate privacy or invite unfair exploitation by outsiders.

Transmitted through how many generations?

There is no minimum age for how long practices need to be established and transmitted between generations in order for them to be considered elements of intangible cultural heritage under the Convention. Some States impose such a requirement on elements to be inventoried, and these range from two or three generations up to seven. In some cases, it is difficult to establish over how many generations a tradition has been practised, particularly in communities whose first language has traditionally not existed in a written form. Since the community itself should decide what it recognizes as its intangible cultural heritage, imposing a uniform, external age limit seems to contradict the Convention.

Particular attention should be given to rapid evolutions with significant impact from external factors: while they may have their roots in traditional intangible cultural heritage elements, they may not always be seen as resulting from an uninterrupted chain of development. Some inventorying systems do not include revitalized elements where there has been such a break; others choose to include them if they are recognized by a community as its heritage.

Regional inventories?

Some States divide their inventories along internal administrative lines. Venezuela, for example, presents the cultural heritage of each of its municipalities separately. Federal states often structure their inventories according to territories; indeed, many States use administrative partitions as a primary classifying principle.

In Colombia, a separate inventory is under development for each of the country’s thirty two departments. China officially recognizes fifty-six ethnic groups and organizes its inventory accordingly. Some countries, such as Haiti, feel no need to distinguish between different communities or regions. However, due to urbanisation, migration and centralizing policies, present day administrative divisions do not always coincide with borders of regions that were traditionally occupied by discrete ethnolinguistic or otherwise definable communities.