TRACS Chair Andrew Bachell Reflects on a Day of Intangible Cultural Heritage

We recently published a Wee Guide to Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) to give you a brief overview, and to highlight the major opportunities and challenges faced by arts and culture organisations, as well as individuals, in celebrating and sharing our intangible cultural heritage.

On 26th May 2023, TRACS – together with Museums Galleries Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and Creative Scotland – hosted a conference at Birnam Arts, featuring keynote speakers in the field, offering a day of discussion, sharing, and coming together.

TRACS Chair and traditional musician Andrew Bachell shares with us his personal reflections of the day:

I recently attended the TRACS conference on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) at the splendid venue of Birnam Arts. The event was run jointly with Museums Galleries Scotland, Creative Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland, the partnership that commissioned the brilliantly crafted report by Steve Byrne on Mapping ICH (2021). Reflecting on the day and on what was said, I found that when in the realm of heritage, you are never far from politics. The old adage, that history is often written by the victors might well apply to the way that heritage is recorded and valued – more’s the pity.

The day began with a reminder of the five domains of ICH defined by UNESCO – covering oral tradition, performance, social practices, knowledge of the natural world and crafts. It seems that in policy terms there is a need for classification, however imperfect, but that it is best used as an aid to thinking and not worn as a straitjacket. We heard about the importance of crafts from Daniel Carpenter of the Heritage Crafts Association and their work in identifying crafts at risk and how that feeds into priorities for intervention. Traditional Crafts will, I hope, become a fourth pillar of TRACS alongside dance, music and storytelling. TRACS is currently looking at getting a fuller picture of the traditional crafts sector by conducting a Traditional Crafts Survey, which asks any traditional makers to respond and share it.

Later, we heard about various projects and works in communities as diverse as those who travelled to Scotland from South Asia in the middle of last century, the settled folk of civil parishes across Scotland, including stories of dressing herring, music collecting, smallpipe making and of the Nawken, resident travellers within the Scottish landscape for at least a millennium. Some of the stories we listened to included recollection of hardship and exclusion, but they all revealed why each community found value in and wanted acceptance of retaining its inherited identity.

We were privileged to have Michelle Stefano from the US Library of Congress to describe their efforts to provide a platform for cultural voice and expression through public folklore. How wonderful it was to hear that each State has an official folklorist. There was speculation that in the USA the processes of dehumanisation, cultural homogenisation and marginalisation of communities are more obvious than they are here, and that inequalities are even seen by some as an appropriate outcome that drives enterprise.

Those thoughts were very generous, but more likely we are no different here in Scotland and the UK, where in truth we still find it hard to come to terms with the colonial past and the consequential displacement of people and cultures. We have done more than enough appropriation of places and artefacts and erasing of the rights and heritage of people worldwide. At the end of a stimulating day, we looked at some of the challenges and opportunities, which were summarised live and in real time by the conference resident artist Sarah Ahmad, aka @floatingdesign in the succinct pictogram.

At various moments there was mention of some very weighty external issues; climate change; displacement and migration; popularist and right-wing governments; the skewing of culture by mass media and news vendors. Such things seemed to magnify the relevance and value of the intangible things that relate to customs, culture, and community; our songs and stories, our gatherings and customs. Such things are not curated by the media and multi-national entertainment corporations, to be packaged and sold as holding the meaning of a fulfilled life. They are the opposite of such control and hold the essence of diversity.

At several points in the day there were deep sighs at the mention of Trumpian politics and its inevitable social conflicts, where the manipulation of differences and the “othering” of whole communities is used as a tool for disagreement and the expression of power. How interesting then, that an exploration of what makes us distinctive may also hold the key to better understand each other too. As one speaker reminded us, we do not live in a melting pot but as a glorious pluralist mix.  With that perspective we have the responsibility to ensure that differences do not mean division. If we can explore, share and understand the many aspects of intangible heritage, difference can become something we celebrate, in an ideal world ……..

So where are we bound? Within the phrase Intangible Cultural Heritage, I find the word “culture” to be a bit superfluous. Another speaker declared some difficulty with the word heritage – and I see his point. Heritage as a concept and in practice has been appropriated by those with the means and power to purloin resources in order to safeguard what is or what has been important to them. Their art, their culture, their buildings. They might have expressed this in terms of the collective “our”, meaning of the nation, so long as that is the nation they recognise; the one framed by the social hierarchy to which they subscribe.

I don’t wish to dismiss those aspects of heritage, but where wealth and entitlement are the sole or dominant means of determining what heritage has value, then heritage itself becomes part of the structure of inequality. The filtering of the past through that process will ensure that what we provide to the future will also reflect that same set of values. With ICH, priorities must be chosen from the community and those that pass on skills and knowledge. We have a real opportunity through ICH to add weight to the processes of democratisation of the heritage industry.

At the meeting I heard two responses to the legacy of heritage politics. The first response is to continue to challenge that legacy. We must seek to show why the culture and customs of all communities are important and why sharing those cultures is one means of harmonising values. Differences not discord. The second response is that we should not wait for the world to change.  As artists, administrators and members of our communities, we should set about exploring the ICH around us, weaving it in to whatever we do, making it important and ensure it fascinates others.

In the past (and most likely in the future) I have engaged in an environmental guerrilla movement – planting trees by stealth, without permission, although with great care about what and where. One day, great oaks may tower over paths and roads where there might have been only chuckies and willow-herb. The same is possible with ICH. As activists we can ensure that the intangible heritage is made evident in all that we do. When eventually Scotland / the UK is a signatory to the UNESCO Convention, if not before, we can be ready to celebrate ICH as an essential ingredient of public policy and support.