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Museums of the Future: using the ecomuseum ideal to promote and safeguard intangible cultural heritage Michelle L.

International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University, UK michelle.stefano@ncl.ac.uk

In recent years, the call for combating the effects of globalisation on cultural diversity has found numerous outlets on an international level. For example, the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organisation (UNESCO), a global leader for the promotion and protection of cultural heritage, has put forth several initiatives in an effort to raise awareness of the multitude of shared and individual ways in which people express themselves. UNESCO uses the term ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (hereafter ICH) for categorising the languages, music, stories and belief systems, as examples, that represent, at the core, the wide range of human cultural expressions. In the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, UNESCO’s most recent and proactive initiative, ICH is defined as follows:
“ICH is 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: Article 2)

In addition, the notion of ‘living heritage’ also applies since “ICH is traditional and living at the same time”1. Nevertheless, it is clear that at the heart of this vitality are the individuals and communities that engage with, and safeguard, their respective intangible cultural expressions. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2004: 60) states that “intangible heritage consists of cultural manifestations (knowledge, skills, performance) that are inextricably linked to persons”. In this regard, ICH stands for more than dance steps, plot twists in storytelling or any other examples of obvious events and actions; it is composed of deeper, underlying values such as teamwork and generosity, as well as significance that stems from senses of belonging and pride, as examples (Stefano & Corsane, 2008). Furthermore, place also plays a role in the relationships between intangible cultural expressions and people. The underlying emotions and values are also inherently linked to the localities and environments within which these expressions have evolved. As Smith (2006: 56) argues, it is these sets of values or meanings that tangible and intangible cultural heritage both represent – whether a site, building, object or performance – that, in essence, can make all heritage intangible. The 2003 Convention highlights the fact that the protection of ICH is equal to the protection of cultural diversity in the face of the homogenising effects of globalisation (UNESCO, 2003: Preamble). However, how this is to be accomplished is a question left

UNESCO, ‘What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?’, 2008 [accessed 19th April 2009], available from http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich



to the governments of each of the 111 member states who have officially agreed to care.2 The question also remains as to which national organisations, agencies and institutions should be responsible for the promotion and safeguarding of the ICH within their territories (Kurin, 2007:13). In response to these current dilemmas, the role museums can play has also been called into debate. This is due to the fact that, by principle, museums have a demonstrated record in valuing the cultural practices and materials of various cultures and individuals. Recognition of the potential for museums to contribute to the promotion and safeguarding of ICH, as well as cultural diversity, has increased in recent years. For instance, the 2004 General Conference of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which with its theme set as Museums and the Intangible Heritage, focused upon the possible roles for museums in counteracting the effects of one mass culture through the promotion and safeguarding of intangible cultural expressions. Although the majority of papers were based on the potential synergy between museum functions and safeguarding ICH, one obstacle cited by participants was the fact that traditional museums are mostly concerned with tangible representations of heritage (Kurin, 2004; Lee, 2004; Matsuzono, 2004; Yim, 2004). In general, the preservation practices of museums pose the risk of ‘fossilising’ intangible cultural expressions since they are, by nature, both alive and ever-changing. Nonetheless, Kurin (2004: 7) noted that “museums are generally poor institutions for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage – the only problem is that there is probably no better institution to do so”. Thus, the ongoing, and most basic, issue lies with how museums can shift their focus from preserving the tangible to safeguarding heritage of an intangible nature, as well as how an understanding of the interconnectedness of heritage, community and territory can be strengthened. Therefore, it is argued that the holistic and integrated approach put forth by the ecomuseum ideal can be used as a guideline to more effectively promote and safeguard ICH. In turn, this can contribute to the overall protection of our cultural diversity – that is, the significance, values and meanings of our cultural expressions.

Using the Ecomuseum Ideal: a holistic and integrated safeguarding approach for ICH In general, the ecomuseum ideal lays a foundation for a “holistic museology” approach that emphasizes the life of people in terms of their full physical, economic, social, cultural, political and environmental interactions and contexts (Corsane & Holleman, 1993: 122). In addition, a safeguarding approach that addresses heritage, territory and community holistically can also include the intangible cultural expressions that are reflective of each. As Davis (1999: 68) states, “intangible local skills, behavior patterns, social structure and traditions are as much part of the ecomuseum as the tangible evidence of landscapes, underlying geology, wildlife, buildings and objects, people and their domestic animals”. It is important to note that the term ‘ecomuseum’ can conjure up the idea of an ecological park, or an area devoted to the protection of particular ecological processes. Although this term may be misleading, it is true that human beings are an integral part of Earth’s ecology. Moreover, the values and meanings that are expressed by our plethora of cultures are also an essential part of the ecology of human
UNESCO, ‘The States Parties to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003)’, 2008 [accessed 19th April 2009], available from http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich


beings (language provides an excellent example). The concept began to take root with the opening of Ecomusée du Creusot-Montceau in 1974, which covered a historically industrial region in Burgundy of approximately 500 square kilometres. Hughes de Varine, one of its creators, has more recently commented that every moveable and immoveable object, including cows, trees and people were part of the museum’s ‘collection’.3 The distinctions between traditional museology and that of ecomuseology have been compared in two formulae first set forth by Rivard (1984; 1988) and used by others (Davis, 1999: 69; Corsane, 2006a; 2006b:404; see also Davis, 1999: 74; Boylan, 2006: 56 for diagrammatic representations). These formulae are as follows: • Traditional Museum = building + collections + expert staff + public visitors • Ecomuseum = territory + heritage + memory + population In brief, the ecomuseum ideal is based on notions of democracy, inclusiveness and an understanding of the interconnected relationships between community, heritage and locality (see Appendix for key ecomuseological principles). In addition, recognition of the mutable nature of these relationships is demonstrated through an emphasis on sustaining resources in situ. Furthermore, decision-making authority is given to community members and individuals due to an awareness of their inherent expertise with regard to the heritage and memories of the designated territory at hand. If museums are to play a role in promoting and safeguarding our cultural diversity, especially those expressions most threatened with extinction, then the notion of what constitutes heritage must be broadened to include the intangible. As previously mentioned, museums have traditionally been concerned with the preservation, conservation and management of material culture – namely objects, monuments and sites. However, with regard to ICH, it is evident that communities and individuals are at its core, the true source of its vitality. Without people who can transmit cultural expressions, knowledge and stories to future generations, ICH ceases to exist. They are the agents of the ever-changing significance, meanings and values attributed to, and embedded within, all representations of living cultural heritage. Thus, first and foremost, any effective safeguarding approach must include the involvement of those who own ICH. Understandably, it is the community or individual (as in some cases) who holds the intimate knowledge of a particular cultural expression’s history, technique and relationship to the environmental, political and social contexts within which it has developed and continues to live. Similarly, the interconnected relationships between people, their heritage and localities must also be taken into account when considering how best to safeguard any representation of heritage (Stefano & Corsane, 2008). Kurin (2007: 12) succinctly phrases this by stating, “[ICH] is not something that can be dearticulated from a broader world of ecological, economic, political and geographic interactions”. In particular, what is needed by museums is a shift towards operating out in the communities beyond their walls, where particular expressions of cultural diversity

De Varine, ‘Tomorrow’s Community Museums’, 1993 [accessed 20 January 2008], available from http://www.hdg.de/index.php


live and continue to develop. As discussed below, this approach is in sharp contrast to the traditional museum activity of collecting tangible representations of heritage, severing their connections to the outside world by bringing them into a museum building and rendering them lifeless as records of the past. For a visual guide on what this shift could entail, the following diagram positions a selection of possible safeguarding efforts in relation to traditional museology, the ecomuseum ideal, as well as each other (see Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Safeguarding ICH: shifting from traditional museology towards the more holistic and integrated approach put forth by the ecomuseum ideal

On the left side of the above diagram, the traditional museum is represented as not engaging with intangible aspects of heritage. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly common that museums are involved with the documentation and recording of local people’s memories, stories, as well as music and other performing arts (Green, 2006: 416). In addition, the introduction of such recordings into the exhibition setting, usually to accompany objects or other information on display, has also grown in popularity in recent years (Burden, 2007: 83). Within the diagram, these efforts are represented by numbers 2 and 3 due to the fact that they exemplify an awareness of intangible aspects of heritage, however, they are not holistic and integrated in approach. As Kurin (2007: 12) states, “If [ICH] exists just as a documentary record of a song, a videotape of a 4

celebration, a multi-volume monographic treatment of folk knowledge, or as ritual artefacts in the finest museums in the country, it is not safeguarded”. Moreover, it can be argued that using recordings, such as oral histories, as an accompaniment to material culture on display relegates ICH to play a secondary role. In such exhibits, it is tangible heritage which is given the spotlight and the recordings are there to provide more context or relevance for it (Burden, 2007: 83). In comparison, effort 4 places more of an emphasis on the practitioners who express ICH, thereby, highlighting it on its own through providing a venue in which they can convene or perform. Similarly, effort 5 demonstrates an awareness of the importance of promoting the intangible cultural expressions which exist outside museum walls. Here, the museum is acting as an access point for visitors to learn more about the networks of practitioners out in the communities beyond the museum, as well as how to become involved. Furthermore, as echoed within UNESCO’s 2003 Convention, the transmission of knowledge to future generations is integral to both the nature of ICH, as well as to aiding in its survival. Museums that engage with teaching the history, skills and meanings of such expressions are contributing to their vitality and future development. Efforts 6 and 7 concentrate on the educational role museums can play by allowing for this passage of knowledge to be facilitated by the community members closest to these expressions. Effort 6 represents teaching activities that can take place within the museum setting (enhancing its role as a venue), whereas effort 7 represents activities that can occur outside the museum, an important step towards an in situ safeguarding approach. Similarly, effort 8 serves to exemplify partnerships that can be formed to strengthen the capacity in which practitioners continue to teach and express ICH in its natural and ever-evolving localities. The above efforts can be seen as steps within a shift from viewing heritage as separate from its communities and environments towards treating them as an interconnected whole. This movement promotes the opportunity for museum professionals to widen the heritage definition to include the meanings, values and emotions that are held by people, especially with regard to expressions of ICH. Most importantly, it can be argued that the originality and diversity of human beings is rooted within these intangible cultural expressions – our varied beliefs, methods of communication, and rituals, to name a few. With this awareness, professionals can begin to collaborate and form partnerships with local communities in an effort to holistically safeguard and promote these aspects of heritage. Moreover, efforts need to be implemented out within the territories of the communities in relation to their ICH. Again, the intricate and inherent links between people, heritage and the environment – and the multitude of contexts in between – cannot be severed. As argued, the true spirit of ICH lies within the notion of continual change, the passage of information from one generation to the next. For the future, museums should begin to broaden the focus of their safeguarding activities to include the owners of living heritage, their connections to the history and heritage of their regions and practices, ideas put forth by the ecomuseum ideal. Seen as a guideline for safeguarding ICH, this ideal, and its founding principles, can provide a means in which museums can more effectively combat the homogenising forces of globalisation. After all, a “display case approach” to safeguarding cultural diversity may prove to be more detrimental than the homogenising force of globalisation itself.


Boylan, P. 2006. The Intangible Heritage: a Challenge and an Opportunity for Museums and Museum Professional Training. International Journal of Intangible Heritage, 1: 54-65. Burden, M. 2007. Museums and the Intangible Heritage: the Case Study of the Afrikaans Language Museum, International Journal of Intangible Heritage, 2, pp.82-91. Corsane, G. & Holleman, W. 1993. Ecomuseums: a brief evaluation. in R. De Jong (ed.) Museums and the Environment: 111-125. Pretoria: South African Museums Association. Corsane, G., Elliot, S. & Davis, P. 2004. Matrix of enabling features and ecomuseum indicators and characteristics, unpublished document. Corsane, G. 2006a. From ‘outreach’ to ‘inreach’: how ecomuseums principles encourage community participation in museum processes. In Communication and Exploration: Papers of International Ecomuseum Forum: 157-171. Beijing: Chinese Society of Museums. Also published in Communication and Exploration, Giuyang, China, 2005: 109-124 Trento, Italy: Documenti di lavoro di Trentino Cultura. Corsane, G. 2006b. Using Ecomuseum Indicators to Evaluate the Robben Island Museum and World Heritage Site. Landscape Research 31 (4): 399-418. Corsane, G., Davis, P., Elliot, S., Maggi, M., Murtas, D. & Rogers, S. 2007a. Ecomuseum Evaluation: Experiences in Piemonte and Liguria, Italy. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 13 (2): 101-116. Corsane, G., Davis, P., Elliot, S., Maggi, M., Murtas, D. & Rogers, S. 2007b. Ecomuseum Performance in Piemonte and Liguria, Italy: The Significance of Capital. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 13 (3): 224 – 239. Davis, P. 1999. Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place. London: Leicester University Press. Green, A. 2006. The Exhibition that Speaks for Itself: oral history and museums. In Perks, R. & Thomson, A. (eds.) Oral History Reader. Routledge, pp. 416 – 424. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. 1998. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums and Heritage. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. 2004. Intangible Heritage as Metacultural Production. Museum International 56 (1-2): 52-65. Kurin, Richard. 2004. Museums and Intangible Heritage: Culture Dead or Alive? ICOM News, 4, pp.7- 9. Kurin, R. 2007. Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage: Key Factors in Implementing the 2003 Convention. International Journal of Intangible Heritage 2: 10-20 Lee, Y.O. 2004. Preparing a Vessel to Contain Lost Life: Preservation and Successful Inheritance of Intangible Cultural Heritage, ICOM News, 4, pp. 5-6. Matsuzono, M. 2004. Museums, Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Spirit of Humanity, ICOM News (4), p. 13. Rivard, R. 1984. Opening up the Museum or Toward a New Museology: ecomuseums and “open” museums. Québec. Rivard, R. 1988. Museums and ecomuseums: questions and answers. in J. A. Gjestrum & R. Maure (eds) Økomuseumsboka-Identitet, Økologi, Deltakelse: 123-128 Tromsø: Norsk ICOM. Smith, L. 2006. Uses of Heritage. Oxon: Routledge. Stefano, M.L. & Corsane, G. 2008. The applicability of the ecomuseum ideal in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage in North East England. In Amoêda, R., Lira, S., Pinheiro, C., Pinheiro, F., & Pinheiro, J. (eds.) World Heritage and Sustainable Development: Heritage 2008 International Conference. Barcelos: Green Lines Institute, pp.347 – 357. Yim, D. 2004. Living Human Treasures and the Protection of Intangible Culture Heritage: Experiences and Challenges, ICOM News, 4, pp.10-12. UNESCO 2003. Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Paris.


Appendix: Key Principles of the Ecomuseum Ideal (Corsane, 2006b: 405; Corsane et al., 2007a: 105, 2007b).

1. An ecomuseum is initiated and steered by local communities. 2. It should allow for public participation in all decision-making processes and activities in a democratic manner. 3. It should stimulate joint ownership and management, with input from local communities, academic advisors, local businesses, local authorities, and government structures. 4. In an ecomuseum, an emphasis is usually placed on the processes of heritage management, rather than on heritage products for consumption. 5. An ecomuseum is likely to encourage collaboration with local craftspeople, artists, writers, actors and musicians. 6. It often depends on substantial active voluntary efforts by local stakeholders. 7. It focuses on local identity and a sense of place. 8. It often encompasses a ‘geographical’ territory, which can be determined by different shared characteristics. 9. It covers both spatial and temporal aspects. In relation to the temporal, it looks at continuity and change over time. Therefore, its approach is diachronic rather than synchronic. 10. The ecomuseum often takes the form of a ‘fragmented museum’, consisting of a network with a hub and antennae of different buildings and sites. 11. It promotes preservation, conservation and safeguarding of heritage resources in situ. 12. In the ecomuseum ideal, equal attention is often given to immovable and movable tangible material culture, and to intangible heritage resources. 13. The ecomuseum stimulates sustainable development and use of resources. 14. It allows for change and development for a better future. 15. It encourages an ongoing programme of documentation of past and present life and people’s interactions with all environmental factors (including physical, economic, social, cultural and political). 16. It promotes research at a number of levels—from the research and understanding of local ‘specialists’ to research by academics. 17. It promotes multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches to research. 18. The ecomuseum ideal encourages a holistic approach to the interpretation of culture/nature relationships. 19. It often attempts to illustrate connections between: technology/individual, nature/culture, and past/present. 20. The ecomuseum can provide for an intersection between heritage and responsible tourism. 21. It can bring benefits to local communities, for example a sense of pride, regeneration, and/or economic income.


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