On March 20, 2008, the Swiss Parliament approved--by a wide majority--two international treaties: one, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions; the other, the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The decision was subject to an optional referendum; that is, if 50,000 citizens had so requested, the ratification would have been submitted to the Swiss electorate for approval. However, since no political group adopted the referendum, the Swiss Federal Council deposited the ratification instruments at the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris after the July 10, 2008, deadline for the referendum had passed. On October 16, 2008, Switzerland became a full-fledged State Party to the conventions.
In this article, I will discuss the treaty concerned with the protection of intangible culture (UNESCO 2003b), but without entirely ignoring connections between the two conventions. (1) The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, whose basic text was written in 2003, aims at caring for living, traditional cultural heritage (that passed on from generation to generation), in part by raising awareness about its importance. Participating States Parties were called upon to create policy frameworks for promoting the practice and transmission of traditional expressive culture--music, theater, dance, craft, etc.--at the national level and within the framework of international cooperation. Official inventories of existing practices were envisioned as a way to create a foundation for State action and enable the protection and promotion of individual components of this heritage.
On the federal level preparations for the ratification were made by the Swiss UNESCO Commission (2) and the Federal Office of Culture. (3) In the following sections I will outline how the previously unknown topic of intangible culture was introduced in Switzerland and how the attendant discussion is connected with the intentions of the Convention itself as well as with the perceptions of cultural heritage that provide its basis.
History of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage
Since the end of World War II, UNESCO has supported efforts at safeguarding and protecting cultural as well as natural "treasures." In the cultural domain, these had long been material objects of archeological, historical, or aesthetic importance. This approach resulted in a situation where objects placed under protection were primarily from the wealthy regions and states of the global North, which had access to centuries-old historic monuments, whereas the South had substantially less evidence of its material cultural heritage. By contrast, intangible domains have long been excluded from preservation efforts in North and South, though attempts to place these under protection have been underway for decades. Merely conceptualizing intangible heritage remains highly controversial, as do more practical questions about how to safeguard cultural expressions such as storytelling and music, dance, and handicrafts. Anthropological and folklore research has long seen its main task as one of collecting and recording artifacts of culturally creative work, but such an objective does not actually protect the work, because it is in any event often no longer lived or practiced. Because associated knowledge and techniques are not integral to objects themselves, these elements of intangible culture were being lost.
In a first phase, UNESCO attempted to protect evidence of intangible culture by legal measures, such as copyright and patent protection. These efforts yielded no concrete results, since the cultural products in question often cannot be attributed to a single individual. In addition, creators are often unknown. Finally, when processes of acquisition and transmission happen anonymously, or in groups, many different variants are created.
The concept of intangible heritage emerged in the 1970s. The term itself was coined in 1982 at the UNESCO Mexico Conference (UNESCO 1982). A number of international agreements followed, such as the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore (UNESCO 1989), the 1994 Living Human Treasures Programme, the 1997-98 Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and, finally, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2003b, hereafter "the Convention"). (4) Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Convention defines "intangible cultural heritage" as
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. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.
Paragraph 2 of the same article specifies five types of intangible cultural heritage:
(a) oral traditions and expression, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship (UNESCO 2003b).
Further, the Convention calls upon States Parties--that is, those member states that had ratified it--to protect the intangible cultural heritage of their respective territories by identifying and inventorying the cultural goods in their territories that are worthy of protection, and by formulating and implementing a heritage policy. In employing the instrument of the list--by encouraging enumeration both on the national and international levels--UNESCO has resorted to the type of measure it had previously applied in other areas of its cultural policy. (5)
Thus, UNESCO has expanded the concept of heritage to include "living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmitted to their descendants, in most cases orally" (UNESCO 2010). Over the years, discussions came to emphasize the role of culture producers, while increasingly minimizing the role of collectors and preservationists (researchers, archivists, curators, etc.). The focus shifted from the product to the producer.
Reflected in the 2003 Convention is the fear that processes of globalization are leading to cultural homogenization and a reduction of cultural diversity, and, above all, pose a threat to the cultural practices of minorities. As UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura reminded the public in a statement marking the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, the Convention's preamble clearly suggests that "intangible cultural heritage is a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development" (UNESCO Regional Office 2007). The prospect of preserving intangible culture is thus also tied to the maintenance of a cultural identity and the question of sustainable development.
The Cultural Sciences and the Concept of Intangible Culture
The paradigm of intangible cultural heritage is not the result of scientific research and debate; rather, it emerges from a complex process of political negotiations in which issues of development and globalization play out against normative and often contradictory notions of culture, diversity, human rights, and equality of nations. It is thus hardly surprising that the concept of intangible culture has met with mixed reactions from the academic community--ranging from hesitant support of the goals and measures all the way to harsh rejection of the concept as vague, unscientific, politically reactionary, and dangerous. Some scholars see the Convention as resulting from the work and theories of anthropologists, sociologists, and folklore scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and they feel that the Convention's authors have not considered the findings of research from more recent decades (Duvignaud et al. 2004; Hemme, Tauschek, and Bendix 2007; Kockel and Nic Craith 2007; Smith and Akagawa 2009).
A number of studies deal with the political and economic consequences of heritage management (Bendix 2009; Di Giovine 2009; Klamer 2004). Research is furthermore being done on the exact mechanisms used for implementing the UNESCO standards (Aplin 2002). The notion of the list itself, central to the UNESCO paradigm, has been critically examined by Valdimar Hafstein (2009) and by participants at a conference of the French Institut Nationale du Patrimoine (2007). (6)
From a scientific point of view, various aspects of the Convention have come under criticism and will be discussed briefly here. One issue concerns the division between material and intangible culture. While the phrase intangible culture is well known and commonly used in English-speaking countries, it does not exist in the German language and is therefore not easily translated. The term refers to aspects of a culture that, unlike places or objects, do not necessarily take on or have a physical form and are consequently quite ephemeral. The closest equivalent to intangible culture in German is immaterielle Kultur (immaterial culture). Many authors discuss the impossibility of distinguishing material from immaterial culture (Munjeri 2004).
The Convention marks a break from earlier, Eurocentric ways of defining cultural heritage and is an attempt to redress past inequalities and dichotomies between North and South. However, it also implies that policies managing intangible culture are largely add-ons that have not undergone an essential rethinking of definitions and practices. The separate national lists are a sign that the 2003 Convention is not based on a more holistic understanding of cultures or cultural concepts.
The current dominance of built heritage and Western material cultural forms in UNESCO politics is in some ways a rather strange, if not ironic, development. The irony is that dominant and influential philosophical or cultural concepts in the West are based on a mind-body or mind-matter dualism that privileges mind over matter. Within this system, the "mind" and all intangible cultural expressions associated with it are regarded as "real" culture and, as such, are highly valued. That which is "behind all things," or that which represents "the inherent quality of things"--that is, the "spiritual"--appears more meaningful than things themselves. Accordingly, material cultural forms are regarded as somehow lowly or merely instrumental. This hierarchical way of thinking, which organizes culture into levels of higher and lesser importance, has been a constant theme in Western thought.
Quite early in cultural anthropological definitions, e.g., in those promulgated by E. B. Tylor, we find a notion of culture as "a complex whole" that must be studied in all its manifestations, from its basest material objects to the most sublime, intangible ideals expressed in cosmologies and religious symbolism (Tylor  1924:1). The relative weight of these two poles, however, has given rise to debate that has been the source of entire new schools of thought. Some anthropological researchers are convinced that material culture is merely the counterpart to mental processes, with the latter giving the former its meaning. One contemporary proponent of this position is Dawson Munjeri (2000), who concludes that the material cultural heritage is secondary: "the tangible can only be interpreted through the intangible."
Newer tendencies within anthropology do not perpetuate the historical distinction between the material and the intangible; instead, they follow a more global approach to culture. A related discussion has been going on in German folklore studies since the 1960s, stimulated significantly by the work of Karl S. Kramer (1962, 1969, 1995). Anglicist and memory researcher Aleida Assmann (1999, 2009) uses the image of fluid and solid states to identify the poles that demarcate the limits of cultural practices and forms, fields in which vivid liquid forms might crystallize into solid forms and vice versa. In the scholarship of Arjun Appadurai and Bruno Latour, the major role of objects and material culture in societal development was worked out from divergent points of view (Appadurai 1986; Latour 1995, 2005); these views have been debated vigorously ever since.
UNESCO definitions of intangible and material culture--and the dichotomy that these definitions …