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Intangible cultural heritage in Belgium during Covid-19 crisis: The voices heard

A questionnaire on the impact of the lockdown measures due to the coronavirus pandemic, launched in April in Flanders, revealed more than 380 answers from respondents working in cultural heritage. Today, we summarize the answers for respondents involved in intangible cultural heritage.

Traditionally, spring is the season for century old parades, processions, cavalcades, fairs and circuses to roam the streets and occupy the market places, often dedicated to legendary figures and Saints. More often than not, such tradition brings an entire community, town or city together. Many municipalities had the difficult message to deliver, that either a large gathering would still be prohibited, or preparations couldn’t follow through. Take for example the ‘Ros Beiaard’ or Bayard parades in Dendermonde, in the East of Flanders: every ten years, a giant horse, straddled by four famous brothers, roams the streets of the city. The famous parade, that attracts thousands of spectators, was bound to set out on May 24th 2020, yet immediately rescheduled its festivities to May 30th 2021. Many others were forced to do the same.

Circuses and fairs in dire straits

Indeed, the pandemic forced communities and organisations to cancel or reschedule their event or celebration, after months and sometimes years of thorough preparation. These public activities serve as an important means for the communities involved, towards the safeguarding of their intangible cultural heritage. For the biggest part of 2020, such public manifestations are simply impossible to organise. Not only is it a pity to cancel or postpone these moments of heritage communities and audience involvement, some of these activities also guarantee a professional income for those involved. Circuses and fairs tend to thrive mostly in spring and summer months, which are all affected by the variety of lockdown and safety measures. The impact these measures have on the lives of those affected is significant.

Despite the fact that fairs often create extra revenue for local economies, they can almost never benefit from local financial support. And families involved in the traveling circus business hardly make ends meet in regular circumstances, let alone in this global crisis. No shows = no income.

No preparation, no fundraising

Intangible cultural heritage events and celebrations scheduled outside the lockdown period lack the much needed preparation time (rehearsals, materials and costume workshops, timerbing and carpeting, etc.) and thus are facing the tough choice of cancelling or postponing their activities either way.

Some organisers appear not to suffer significant losses due to postponing. Others see their next year’s activities jeopardized even by a loss of f.e. € 2.500, especially when many purchases were already made, and freelance activities were already invoiced. Even more so, all live fundraising activities which are used to fund future activities, are prohibited. As local retailers themselves are struggling, local sponsorship revenue tends to vanish almost entirely. Organisations hope their voices are heard by local municipalities to help them out, for example, by writing off debts and rentals. Some already received similar small support.

The communities involved

During March and April, artisans weren’t able to receive clients, or sell their products. Some had their necessary resources and raw materials deliveries cancelled. On the positive note, some makers found extra time during lockdown to really indulge in their craft.

Freelance workers involved in intangible cultural heritage activities, see their revenue reduced to zero and are often poorly supported - artisans, filmmakers, freelance guides and audience developers.

Intangible cultural heritage is a field carried by innumerable volunteers. In most cases, these volunteers are among the most vulnerable in the Covid-19 pandemic, due to their average age profile, thus urging their organisation to cancel all gatherings and activities.

Museums involved with intangible cultural heritage practice, were closed in Belgium until May 18th, and slowly opening on their own terms since then. The questionnaire estimates an income loss between € 25.000 to € 250.000 for these museums. They try to get by by installing systems of temporary unemployment for their staff. During lockdown, many rearranged stocks and archives and geared up their digital presence.

NGO Workshop intangible heritage Flanders strongly advised the Belgian policy makers to not forget vulnerable heritage and to ensure safeguarding practices are able to continue.

Les désignations employées et la présentation des textes et des documents référencés dans cette plateforme n'impliquent de la part de l'UNESCO aucune prise de position quant au statut juridique des pays, territoires, villes ou zones, ou de leurs autorités, ni quant au tracé de leurs frontières ou limites.