Preserving the intangible elements of humanity : How Korea works with Unesco to conserve global cultural heritage
But it doesn’t mean they are of less value. There are those who say that the most important things in life are intangible - like air, warmth, love or faith.
American essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) put it quite romantically saying, “The true harvest of my life is intangible - a little star dust caught, a portion of rainbow I have clutched.”
The same goes for cultural heritage items.
When you talk about tangible heritage items, people tend to think of things like the remains of an old castle or jewelry unearthed from tombs. But, it may take some time before people can think of specific examples of intangible heritage.
Korea is considered one of the most active countries in identifying and preserving intangible cultural heritage items - for instance, the craftsmanship used to weave traditional clothing or the performance skills used to walk a tightrope.
This, according to critics, is because Korea experienced an invasion, a war, industrialization and globalization over a short period of time in the 20th century, leaving many of its cultural heritage items endangered.
This perhaps explains why a Unesco organization with a focus in the area of intangible cultural heritage opened in Korea in 2011. Currently there are Unesco organizations that deal with intangible cultural heritage in eight countries - Korea, Japan, China, Peru, Iran, Algeria, Bulgaria and Brazil.
The International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region under the auspices of Unesco located in Jeonju, North Jeolla, releases publications and hosts conferences related to the topic of intangible cultural heritage throughout the region.
As Korea recently added the female divers indigenous to Jeju Island known as haenyeo to Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Kwon Huh, the organization’s director-general, to further learn about intangible cultural heritage, the organization and more.
“Through intangible cultural heritage, people can find cooperation, harmony, peace, sources for creative pursuits and the basis for sustainable development,” he says. “But first and foremost, intangible cultural heritage has to be part of people’s daily lives.”
Huh has been in the field of culture and education for about 30 years, serving in positions like the deputy secretary-general at the Korean National Commission for Unesco. He also taught at the Korean National University of Cultural Heritage from 2007 to 2013.
Unesco defines intangible cultural heritage as the following: Oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices and rituals; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.
Below is an edited excerpt from the interview.
A. Previously, when you talked about cultural heritage, people generally thought of tangible cultural heritage. Such was particularly the case in Europe. Few discussions took place on intangible cultural heritage globally. But things changed in the late 20th century as countries in Africa and Asia began to bring up issues regarding intangible cultural heritage. It was also around this time that concerns rose about rapid globalization and discussions took place around Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilizations. As a result, people called for cultural diversity and this naturally led to an interest in intangible cultural heritage.
What was the main turning point?
In 2003, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was passed by the Unesco General Conference. Before that, the conventions passed by the Unesco General Conference dealt with tangible cultural heritage. They are: the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict in 1954; the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1970; and finally, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (also known as the World Heritage Convention) in 1972. Few countries were interested in intangible cultural heritage then [20th century]. Korea and Japan were among the few countries that introduced a system to identify and preserve intangible cultural heritage. Korea has had a regulation on intangible heritage since 1962, modeled after Japan’s system.
Tell us more about the process leading to the 2003 Convention.
In fact, there was some resistance for the 2003 Convention from European members. For starters, many European countries said that they did not really get the concept and secondly did not see the need. For us, that our traditional culture is endangered and therefore needs to be protected is so easy to grasp. But for many European countries, where traditions like Easter and Thanksgiving are being carried on, that wasn’t the case. But African and Asian countries that were experiencing industrialization, westernization and colonization were desperate. So the 2003 Convention was born amid the conflict between developed countries and developing countries.
Why do you think Korea is so keen on intangible cultural heritage?
Korea experienced a cessation in its traditional culture getting passed down to the present generation. There was the Japanese colonization (1910-45); Korean War (1950-53); and rapid industrialization. They occurred together and they were all extreme. For instance, all those separated families from the Korean War have left their hometowns and leaving their hometowns often mean losing their culture. In that sense, Korea is a country that put its cultural heritage at risk. But as our center works with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, we learned that many are only in the early stages of adopting a system to identify and preserve intangible cultural heritage.
What are some things to learn from the other countries in the Asia-Pacific region?
Korea has a system, but it doesn’t mean that intangible cultural heritage is a part of Koreans’ daily lives. Unesco’s 2003 Convention on intangible cultural heritage isn’t just about preserving but also about utilizing. But in Korea the focus is more on preservation and intangible cultural heritage is often considered a reflection of a certain group of people. There are many “young countries” in the Asia-Pacific region, whose youth takes up a majority of the population, like Vietnam for instance. And it’s amazing to see how their traditional culture is part of the young people’s daily lives.
Tell us more about the shortcomings of Korea’s system regarding intangible cultural heritage.
Korea is a country where people can live without traditional culture. It has laws and regulations to identify and preserve intangible cultural heritage but that’s it. Unesco’s view of intangible cultural heritage goes further, though. It hopes that through intangible cultural heritage, people can find cooperation, harmony, peace, sources for creative pursuits and the basis for sustainable development. So basically, Unesco is looking for answers for the challenges of the 21st century in intangible cultural heritage. Korea, in that sense, needs a broader approach in dealing with intangible cultural heritage.
Last but not least, is there any intangible heritage skills that you would like to acquire one day?
I would like to learn calligraphy one day. People who are into performing arts often learn teamwork and harmony, while those who are in visual arts learn to reflect on their inner selves and have an insight into the world. I hope teachers and parents study further into these educational and psychological effects of different genres of intangible cultural heritage so that intangible cultural heritage can really be part of our daily lives.
BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]