Fossilisation, Commercialisation or Participation? Exhibiting Intangible Cultural Heritage in China

By Philipp Demgenski

Paper presented at the “Museum Collection, Exhibition and Interpretation: in Anthropological Perspective” Museum Anthropology Conference organised the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, held in Beijing, China, August 1-2, 2017.


The 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage has opened up a discursive space and provided a distinct value framework to state parties, enabling them to conceive, define and appraise their Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). The Convention can thus not merely be seen as a neutral tool to identify and safeguard existing cultural practices and traditions, it has to also be regarded as an active agent in (re)shaping and (re)making “culture” under the label of ICH. In China, for instance, ICH or what is locally known as feiyi (非遗) introduced a new category, a new value system, under which different stakeholders (government, scholars and bearers alike) have been able to operate and get a grip on what was previously indistinctly labelled as “folk culture” (民间文化) or “folk ways” (民俗). It is for this reason that the question of how to exhibit ICH can only be addressed with reference to and within the specific context of the Convention. Based on currently ongoing ethnographic research on the implementation of the Convention in China, in this paper, I discuss different forms and contexts in which ICH is being exhibited and displayed in China. I provide examples from so-called ICH Exposition Parks (非物质文化遗产博览园), Cultural Theme Parks, Ecological and other Museums. I show that the majority of these ways of exhibiting ICH either lead to the fossilisation or to the commercialisation of a given ICH element or to both. I also show that the participation, as defined by the Convention, of the heritage bearers is often only minimal. In this regard, ICH as it manifests itself through exhibitions and displays in China diverts from the spirit of the Convention that particularly emphasises the widest possible participation of ICH communities, groups or individuals in the maintenance, transmission and management of heritage. However, viewed from a different perspective, in the context of China’s larger development and modernisation programme, ICH exhibitions actually offer heritage bearers an opportunity to actively participate in and benefit from national economic development.


Cómo “comerse” un patrimonio: construir bienes inmateriales agroalimentarios entre directivas técnicas y empresariado patrimonial

Bortolotto, Chiara . Cómo “comerse” un patrimonio: construir bienes inmateriales agroalimentarios entre directivas técnicas y empresariado patrimonial. [en línea]. Revista Andaluza de Antropología, Num. 12, marzo de 2017., pp. 144-166. ISSN: 2174-6796

Este artículo explora el creciente dominio del patrimonio cultural inmaterial alimentario en el marco de la Convention de la UNESCO para la salvaguarda del patrimonio cultural inmaterial. El análisis traza la fricción entre los principios y objetivos de la Convención y las expectativas iniciales de los primeros proyectos de patrimonialización en la esfera alimentaria. A partir de la observación etnográfica de la producción del expediente de la “Comida gastronómica de los franceses” se revisará el proceso de adecuación de los proyectos locales al dispositivo internacional poniendo así al día el poder performativo de las directivas técnicas elaboradas a menudo informalmente para alinear las solicitudes de los Estados con las prioridades de la Convención. Esta experiencia técnica permite separar los aspectos culturales dentro del sector de la alimentación de otras facetas, incluyendo la comercial, no obstante orgánicamente relacionados con este campo. Si los documentos presentados a la Unesco se esfuerzan por eliminar estos temas polémicos, siguen siendo el centro de las preocupaciones de los actores sociales y políticos, y se encuentran actualmente en el centro del debate sobre la relación entre la salvaguardia del patrimonio cultural inmaterial y el desarrollo sostenible puestos en cuestión por las implicaciones del uso neoliberal de la cultura como un recurso.

This article explores the field of food-related intangible cultural heritage in the framework of the Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The analysis outlines the frictions between the Convention’s principles and objectives and the initial expectations of the first heritage projects in the food realm. Grounded on the ethnographic observation of the making of the nomination file of the «Gastronomic meal of the French», the article examines the complex encounter between local priorities and endeavours on one side and international norms and procedures on the other. The tension arising from this encounter sheds light on the agency of technical directives informally put forward by international organisations to harmonise the States’ requests within global governance apparatuses. In our case technical expertise isolates foodways’ cultural aspects from other features, in particular commercial interests, despite their organic integration within this field. Even if the nomination files submitted to Unesco try to clear these controversial matters, the latter stay high among the concerns of social and political actors. Currently at the core of the raising debate on the relationship between the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development within Unesco, ICH’s economic potential question the implications of the neoliberal uses of culture as a resource.

“Collaborative dilemmas” in the age of uncertainty – Virtual roundtable on Allegralab

Against the backdrop of increasing projectization and casualization of research, academic insecurity, and existential anxiety for new generations of researchers, collaborative research with international organizations, state agencies or NGOs takes on the corollary function of providing professional status and remunerated jobs that universities do not offer to the growing academic precariat.

A virtual roundtable is now open on Allegralab to interrogate the effects of collaboration between anthropologists and their elite interlocutors on research design, practice and outcomes.

If you are ready to to share your anxiety and disclose your collaborative dilemmas, please join the conversation. Write a comment or send a detailed response to Any kind of contribution is welcome!


Safeguarding measures for the recognized ICH

By Morena Salama and Natalia Brayner

This panel will be held on June 21st , in Ouro Preto (Minas Gerais, Brazil) during the Seminar “ Intangible Cultural Heritage – impacts and repercussions from the recognition”, organized by IPHAN, The National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage. This seminar is part of the 50th Edition of Winter Festival of Ouro Preto. The panel will explore the implementation of safeguarding measures for intangible elements declared as national cultural heritage. Having in mind the measures carried out by IPHAN from 2004 to 2014, Salama will present the construction, application and the findings of the methodology for the evaluation and monitoring of the safeguarding processes set after an element is recognized as national cultural heritage.

For more information and the Seminar Programme (in Portuguese):

Making ICH in times of political turmoil

Boi de Guimarães [Ox of Guimarães]. Photo by Edgar Rocha, 2007. IPHAN’s archive.)

It is over a year now that the ex-president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, was substituted by her vice, Michel Temer, over a dubious process of impeachment that lead the country to fall into a deep political crisis. This instability affected enormously the implementation of cultural policies in the country, since one of the first actions taken by the new president was to extinct the Ministry of Culture. After being severely criticized by professionals of the artistic sector, who had big influence in the mainstream media, Temer backed down and recreated the Ministry of Culture. However, the ministers nominated by him didn’t stay in power longer than 6 months.

IPHAN, the Brazilian National Institute of Historical and Artistic Heritage, is linked to such ministry and also was affected by the political changes.  Temer nominated a new president  who belonged to the institution and who manage to stay in power dispite the successive changes of ministers. But the institution suffered a drastic cut in its annual budget. Because of that many processes for the safeguarding of ICH, including the researches for the recognition of intangible elements as National Cultural Heritage, have been suspended, waiting IPHAN to finally have financial means to carry on with their execution.

I started my fieldwork in this context of institutional precarity, just the day after the last minister of culture had renounced. My previous experience as UNESCO consultant for IPHAN, fortunately, helped me to have access to IPHAN´s authorities, internal procedures, decisions and data.

By returning to the institution after long period apart, my first impression was that its civil servants are carrying on with their daily duties, saying to themselves that they are not working for Temer, but for the protection of Brazilian cultural heritage in itself. For them, now more than ever, the Brazilian safeguarding policy is not a “government” policy, but rather a “state” policy. That is to say, a policy which is not subjected to governmental fluctuations.

On the other hand, there are IPHAN authorities, who were nominated with the ascension of Temer. As far as I can see, they are giving continuity to the programmes created by the previous governments, reinforcing such believe. The political changes was taken by these authorities as an opportunity to leave their mark on the institution and on the Brazilian heritage regime. A big challenge considering the budget cuts, the constant need to prove their legitimacy and efficiency as public authorities, and the fear that tomorrow a new governmental change might take place.

Since my first step in the institution I notice that the sensation of instability was dominant, making me to feel impelled to offer my help in order to have, at least, a case to follow.

The result was me getting in charge of setting up the nomination process of Bumba-Meu-Boi (Bumba My Ox) to the Representative List of the ICH Convention together with a civil servant from IPHAN’s local office. This considering that back in 2012, one year after the Boi became National Cultural Heritage, its community requested IPHAN to prepare such nomination. But, only now that the institution had the “political conditions” to proceed with it. According to the insitution, at that time, other elements were already on the queue and had the priority. Besides, in the Boi case, the focus should be on the implementation of a participative safeguarding process.

Surprisingly, in the same week an evidence that the political forces were coinciding in favour of the Boi nomination came through with the organization of two solemn session to pay tribute to the Bumba-Meu-Boi. One made by the local parliament of São Luis of Maranhão, and the other by the Congress in Brasília. In the last event IPHAN´s president announced the preparation of the nomination of the Bumba-Meu-Boi, opening the 2017 festivities of June, which traditionally in São Luis, and in many other parts of the country, are made with hundreds presentations of different types of Boi.

Folders with all the material produced for the National Registry of Bumba-Meu-Boi as Cultural Heritage. Salama, 2017

These coincidences help me to overcome the challenge of having a case to study in such context, but left me with another task: to work with and to reflect upon my double role as researcher and hands-on-heritage-maker.

While I am studying the documents produced for the national recognition of Boi as National Cultural Heritage (photo above), which in Brazil must precede the nominations to UNESCO’s Lists, I am asking myself how to prepare this nomination with the widest posible participation of  Boi communities – a requirement of the ICH Convention. Will the Boi communities want and thus be able to find consensus in order to answer all the questions of the nomination forms? Will they just focus on the discussion and drafting of a safeguarding plan?  Will they take a long time to do it? And the people involved, are they representative of all segments of the concerned communities? Will these different segments look for a unity or compete with each other? If so, will they diverge over which issues?

Considering this special political context, will this participative perspective benefit the political forces in place? Will it give them more legitimacy?

But then, vested with my other role, I ask myself if the above questions are only an assessment of the efficacy of the participative call of the ICH Convention? Or, if  they are just a reflection of my own understanding of community participation? In that case, is my view different from IPHAN and the Boi communities ones? If so which view will prevail in practice?

And what if Temer falls? Will IPHAN continue with this nomination ? If heritage-making is intrinsically political, is it possible to happen even when political forces are discredited and struggling to keep in power?


IPHAN’s head office decorated for  June Festivities. Diana Dianovsky, 2017