Can Scotland play a leading role in redefining Heritage?

Last night I attended the Heriot Watt School of Management and Languages' most recent thought leadership seminar: ‘Can Scotland play a leading role in redefining Heritage?'  The event, chaired by Ann Packard, brought together leaders in the field to explore this question in the context of a heightened awareness of heritage debates both nationally and internationally.

Heritage policy has a powerful cultural influence in contemporary global societies. The adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) by UNESCO in 2003 has illuminated the burgeoning role of public participation in the inventory, presentation and conservation of cultural heritage. The UK, however, has not ratified the convention. This  is partly due to the UK’s preoccupation with tangible and built heritage, but more likely down to the fact that the UK government simply has no interest. It is unlikely that the UK will take part any time soon: they have a long-standing resistance to certain UNESCO initiatives, dating back to the early 1980s.

Scotland, then,  is in an interesting position. We have no official ‘state’ and so no direct pathway to official state recognition (currently, the only way to interact with UNESCO is through NGOs). Before the independence referendum, the SNP promised that in the event of a yes vote, Scotland would sign. Given the result of the UK General Election, Scotland is not in a position to sign the convention unless it can persuade Westminster of the value of doing so. 

At the moment, the cultural sector in Scotland is strong, particularly at the grassroots level, with world class festivals and numerous community-led organisations dedicated to promoting education in and transmission of various forms of ICH. With sympathetic implementation, the convention could raise awareness and support the sustainability of those cultural practices that define the groups, communities, regions and national identity of contemporary Scotland.

Professor Máiréad Nic Craith, Chair in European Culture and Heritage at Heriot-Watt University, was the first of the panellists to speak, with a provocation entitled ‘(Re-)Building Heritage: Beyond Binaries.’ She defined ‘heritage’ as a resource that is as much about the future as it is about the past: a resource at the centre of a field of relations with links to ecology, creativity, sustainability, culture, tourism, economy, community.

Máiréad outlined the UNESO policy definitions, pointing out that until fairly recently, the category of 'cultural heritage' was restricted to monuments and buildings. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention (1972) classified heritage as either ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ owing their rating according to measurements of ‘outstanding universal value.’ You would be forgiven for thinking that what is now defined as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ came about as something of an afterthought:

The practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage
— UNESCO 2003

This binary definition of 'tangible' and 'intangible' is symptomatic of an inherited paradigm and dualistic mindset of Western thought (quantitative/qualitative, reason/emotion, cultural/natural etc) critiqued at length in various academic disciplines. Heritage policy itself is governed by a common set of philosophies that have their origins in a particular, modern, Euro-American way of thinking about the relationship between the past and present. This includes both a desire to order and categorise and a late-modern obsession with vulnerability, uncertainty and risk.

As Máiréad pointed out, the intangible is reliant on the tangible and vice versa. Any one cultural object does not exist in isolation; it is always part of a whole matrix of relationships, and that matrix is as important as the object itself. She gave the example of culture and architecture - both contributing to  the ‘spirit of place’ in which communities live. For the future, she advocates a holistic approach, re-conceptualising tangible and intangible heritage not as discrete categories but as connected  aspects of the indivisible heritage whole. She emphasised the need for an overarching strategy; a strategy that does not reinforce the tangible/intangible divide within a bleak economic forecast and with an ever-decreasing pot of funding. In a practical and policy sense, she suggests a model of our ‘heritage futures' that relates to (in no hierarchical order) communities, business, the creative industries, third sector, universities, dedicated heritage agencies and government.


Joanne Orr, CEO of Museums Galleries Scotland, spoke about recent developments for ICH in Scotland (Museums Galleries Scotland are the only UNESCO accredited NGO in the UK). Via NGOs, communities are starting to influence UNESCO and to have a voice (the next NGO Forum meeting will take place in Catalonia in June). Joanne made clear that while the convention has a framework to engage with, it also has operational directives which have to be updated every year; that is to say, policy is constantly evolving.  She was keen to point out in Scotland, unlike other nations,  an 'inclusive' definition of ICH  has been fundamental to the approach adopted (in international terms, this was actually quite controversial). Given that ICH is also considered ‘living culture,’ Scotland also considers those heritage practices that aren’t necessarily indigenous to Scotland part of Scotland’s living culture. This  embraces the diversity of cultures found in Scotland including that of migrant communities.

Perhaps the most inspiring contribution of the evening came from Janet Archer, head of Creative Scotland, who spoke passionately about her background and love of dance: the ‘intangible, ineffable sensory, embodied experience the subtle interactions of bodies in space.’  She spoke of the value of the transformative experiences of taking part and witnessing these performances that are so very difficult to articulate, yet so powerful and deeply moving. She also outlined Creative Scotland’s new 10 year plan:  Creative strategy Unlocking Potential: Embracing Ambition. The research for this measured the intangible, qualitative, emotional alongside the economic and quantitative. She spoke passionately about the need in policy to make more space for the value and 'significance of experiences' of encounters with art. This was a welcome emphasis.

In talking about ‘heritage,’ Janet was conflating her own definitions of ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ with the very specific definitions as laid out by UNESCO:  the ‘intangible’ ineffable dimension and significance of cultural experience; and ‘tangible benefits’ for individuals and communities taking part in cultural practices in terms of economic growth and transferable skills. This conflation slightly confused the matter, but more than anything highlights the problem of language and the clumsy, heavy terminology in heritage policy. 

Despite semantic problems with definitions here, what Janet was talking about is really the heart of the matter. For me, a central question is this: how do we create space, or how do we enlarge the policy definition of culture and heritage to reflect the multi-sensory, lived-in and embodied value and significance of experience?

Colin McLean, head of Heritage Lottery Fund Scotland, remarked that the very act of defining heritage is dangerous territory and that is a very strange thing for a body of experts to decide (a very welcome interjection to the debate). By highlighting the sheer number and variety of of  applications to HLF, he demonstrated what he called a 'real passion' for heritage in communities (and also enlightened the audience to the price of a bee, £40 a head!). Luke Wormald, Head of Historic Environment Strategy, Scottish Government (Our Place in Time) spoke of the real difficulty of determining 'social value' with competing policy and intellectual definitions. He also spoke of the strong drive to encourage communities to promote their own heritage.

One example of this drive to encourage the recognition of local heritages is the MGS collaboration with Edinburgh Napier University on the ICH Living Culture Wiki project (this project is now in phase two with a new website to be published at the end of June). The first attempt at a living culture wiki was not a huge success. Any wiki is only as good as its contributors, and where this project seemed to struggle was failing to engage with groups and communities on the ground.  In order to succeed, such a platform must be compelling; part of a much wider awareness raising and participative approach. Any future hub has to be something that people actively want to be a part of. It has to be exciting, fresh and bold. The answer perhaps lies in finding a balance between a top-down policy and bottom-up implementation: what is needed  is a support network of individuals and organisations 'in the middle' to act as mediators between policy and practice: folklorists, ethnologists, oral historians & culture brokers.

For me, one of the key problems with this Wiki project is the lens through which it was conceived of in the first place: the context of cultural tourism. The definition of ICH put forward by the UNESCO convention is a redefinition of a concept familiar to ethnology and folklore, i.e. the study of popular and traditional culture. There is a wealth of knowledge, expertise and methodology that is missing from this project; knowledge and expertise that Scotland has already been leading for a century or more. This is not to say that approaching such a project from the perspective of cultural tourism is not of value or important, but rather to say that such a limited approach is not the whole picture. In my view, it is lacking both a theoretical underpinning and vital insight. To use a compelling ecological analogy from ethnomusicologist Jeff Tod Titon, such an approach ‘runs the risk of being like chemical fertilisers, artificial stimuli that feeds the plant but starves the soil.’ 

Questions from the floor came largely from current PhD students. Cristina Clopot  raised the issue of gender and ethical issues and Ella Leith raised the issue of British Sign language (BSL) and gatekeeping. Will organisations such as Creative Scotland and HLF accept applications in the heritage language of BSL? If not, how do these communities access funding via the traditional means?  If not intentionally, Ella’s question very acutely highlighted an uncomfortable irony: those on the stage -  purportedly espousing the values of equality, access and inclusivity - were actually speaking too fast for the signing interpreters to keep up.

There were also questions about Gaelic and Scots language (languages are not regarded as intangible cultural heritage but rather a ‘vehicle’ for cultural expression according to the UNESCO convention). What does it say about Scotland that people won’t or don’t want to learn or celebrate these languages? None of panellists really answered this question, preferring instead to to talk about the issue from the safety of their own institutional/organisational backgrounds. There was an incredibly a jarring moment with some well-meaning but extremely ill-judged comments about the Gaelic language from the Chair. With the original question coming from Brian Ó hEadhra, the Gaelic Arts Officer at Creative Scotland, Janet was able to answer that Creative Scotland was playing its part, but given that there is only one person dedicated to Gaelic arts in a national body reveals perhaps the feeling that this is not a central issue.

Ethnomusicologist Simon McKerrell, from Newcastle Universityasked the panel, ‘Is the institutional structure right for ICH?’ There was not a willingness to admit that the current infrastructure is far from ideal. Given the current constitutional set-up, there is really very little power in the institutions.

My own question was this: rather than viewing our current situation as a barrier, does this freedom from bureaucracy (i.e. not being ratified by UK), actually provide us with a productive opportunity to do something more creative, to interpret this ICH policy in our own way? Moreover, while the values embedded in the UNESCO vision are fantastic, the idea of creating an ‘official list’ could be seen as a diversion, as a kind of ‘dead hand.’ Who decides what is worthy of official recognition? Is it merely who shouts the loudest?

The answer given and argument put forward was that Scotland needs to be seen as an ‘equal partner’ on the world stage. Without official recognition, the world won’t know how rich and diverse our ICH is here in Scotland!  I wholeheartedly agree with this; but for me, the primary aim is about getting people to recognise, affirm and celebrate the value of their own heritage practices in their own communities. We shouldn’t need to the world to sanction or to tell us that we have such a rich and diverse seam of cultural tradition; we should know it ourselves.

My question is one that actually emerged from a recent event organised by David Francis, bringing together policy makers, academic researchers, artists, practitioners and students. This was part of a continuing series of Traditions in Place regional events -  in association with Museums and Galleries Scotland and and the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen. What this particular event demonstrated was the fact that there is a great deal of passion, interest and enthusiasm clustering around the ICH agenda. Discussions foregrounded the need - outlined by Máiréad last night - to re-conceptualise tangible and intangible heritage not as discrete categories but as connected and interactional aspects of the heritage whole. The conclusion - with the caveat admission and humility that ‘no-one has got this sussed yet’ -  was that we need a nimble yet strategic form of public and stakeholder participation in heritage beyond binaries and hierarchies; that we need to reach towards a perspective offering a greater attention to the networked nature of ICH management and practice and its matrix of relationships to better integrate museums and their objects, local places, performers, artists, traditions in the community with national cultural memory and its cultural politics  (full report available here).

So, to ask the question again: can Scotland play a role in redefining heritage? I believe it can. While we cannot yet achieve official state recognition through our present state machinery, it is possible for the Scottish government to legislate without ratification. As a model, we could learn from Newfoundland (the Canadian government  has not yet ratified the convention either). There, with no official list to worry about, people are rather focusing on community workshops, oral history projects, training people in the community how to do their own fieldwork & oral history, re-contextualising ICH through new creative projects and exploring links with Memorial University of Newfoundland and their extensive knowledge in traditional and popular culture.

Rather than see our current constitutional set-up as a barrier, the ambiguity of our situation provides us with a will, a focus and a productive opportunity to break the mould. Without the heavy hand of policy overwhelming us, and no state pressure to conform to, we in Scotland have carte blanche to interpret, redefine and legislate our own policy. It is a real chance to develop a unique and dynamic safeguarding infrastructure that actually does move beyond binaries and recognises the indivisible heritage whole.

At the same time, we should be lobbying MPs and raising awareness about the value an importance of international UNESCO recognition. Should the time come that the UK does ratify the convention - or indeed should Scotland become independent State and our government signs up - the ratification will be a something of a formality, with the groundwork already in motion.

In my view, the sexy status of international recognition should not distract us from the vital yet quiet task we have of working together to build capacity and confidence at local level, providing a framework where people can affirm and celebrate a heightened awareness of what they are contributing to a local, national and international sense of identity. 

If we are to truly ‘play a leading role in redefining heritage’ in Scotland we need to be challenging the epistemologies, social theories and often un-reflected philosophical assumptions upon on which we rely to derive understanding.  Rather than conceptualising heritage, as current policy does, in terms of tangible and intangible entities, there is strong argument to conceptualise heritage not as a product but as process.

A process of engagement, an act of communication and an act of making meaning in and for the present
— Laura-Jane Smith, The Uses of Heritage 2006

This allows us to think of public and stakeholder participation beyond the binaries and hierarchies as well as beyond global-local relations. In this whole picture there are a series of tensions: between the State and the community or individual; between enabling/facilitation and intervention; between concern for safeguarding while at the same time commodifying culture for export; between performance and practice at local level and the driving market forces of cultural tourism. What role will various social actors - including technologies old and new - have to play in order to create the networks on which the manifold forms of the local can rely in their encounter with the multiple manifestations of the global?  

For me, the evening’s debate was not as challenging as it could have been. The speakers and Q&A session didn’t really take on board Máiréad's initial provocation about moving beyond binaries and redefining heritage. Rather, the answers were on the uncomfortable side of self-congratulatory, with policy blinkers firmly in place. This is not to undermine the work that has already been done, but to suggest that to really fulfil Scotland’s cultural potential  - and to give shape to the imagination of alternatives to the current order of things  - requires serious considerations of difficult questions.