UNESCO's world heritage program is known for protecting buildings or places such as Cologne's cathedral or the Rhine River Valley. But a new convention has taken effect to safeguard intangible heritage as well.
Munich's famous Schäfflertanz could be a candidate for UN protection
A new convention passed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) went into effect on Thursday to protect cultural heritage. But unlike the numerous World Heritage sites around the globe, the things listed in the Convention on Safeguarding Intangible Heritage will not be made of brick, stone or wood.
Ratified by 30 nations since it was passed in October 2003, the convention is intended to keep more fleeting elements of culture -- folk songs, traditional costumes and dances, handcrafts and languages -- from disappearing all together.
“The main purpose is to support cultural diversity around the world,” said Dieter Offenhäuser, press spokesman for Germany’s UNESCO Commission. “Many developing nations do not have much in the way of material heritage, like historical buildings or monuments, and so on. Their cultures are determined by oral history and things like music, traditional dances and languages spoken by only a few people. Through the UNESCO program, this kind of intangible heritage will become known worldwide.”
So far, there are 43 items on the UNESCO list -- including everything from theatre and art to rituals and social practices, like bark-cloth making in Uganda or the Palestinian storytelling tradition, Hikaye.
Germany has yet to ratify
In Germany, however, the intangible heritage convention has yet to be ratified. Offenhäuser said that Germany's plethora of traditions and its federal system of cultural ministries may have stalled ratification.
German carnival traditions would be a likely candidate
"We first need to evaluate whether there is a real necessity in Germany to protect cultural heritage through the UNESCO convention," Offenhäuser said. "And then there is the question of eligibility. Take the three big carnival traditions, for example: the Cologne, the Allemanic, and the Rhineland-Palatinate carnival. They are all important to tradition, very much alive, and all different."
Marie-Theres Albert, professor of World Heritage Studies at the Technical University in Cottbus disagrees that the number of potential candidates should keep Germany from upholding the convention.
"We need to establish guidelines and criteria," Albert said. "There are many German traditions and customs from ethnic groups that have become part of German society which are just as important culturally as the dozens of physical world heritage sites. As long as the customs continue to develop, without becoming tourist events or folklore, they should be protected."
There are four official minority groups in Germany: the Sorbs in Lusatia near the Polish and Czech borders, the Danish and Frisian Germans in the north of the country and the Sinti/Roma. All of these groups receive governmental subsidies to uphold their languages and culture.
Sorbs in traditional garb
Last year, the federal government and the states of Brandenburg and Saxony spent over 16 million euros ($19.8 million) on Sorbian cultural interests such as bilingual Sorbian kindergartens and school language programs, a theatre company and other Sorbian institutions. But this year, the government has already announced 500,000 euros in funding cuts. Sorbian officials fear even more to come during budget renegotiations in 2007.
Should the German government ratify the UNESCO convention to safeguard intangible cultural heritage, it will have to decide how to fund what it intends to protect. This may bring a kind of insurance for minority cultures like the Sorbs. But it could also bring other more "mainstream" cultural candidates to the table. And that might mean even less of the shrinking pie of art and cultural subsidies for everyone.