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Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Embarrassment of Heritage Alienability

Wednesday, February 28, 2018, 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm

In its classic definition, heritage is the inalienable possession of a group, often imagined as a nation. With intangible cultural heritage (ICH), UNESCO introduced key shifts in this understanding. Based on ethnographic observations of the meetings of the statutory organs of the Convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage, this paper explores the controversies generated among heritage policy-makers and administrators by “risks of over-commercialisation” of ICH, particularly in the domains of crafts and foodways. While for some of my interlocutors heritage should ideally be as detached as possible from market logics, for others denying their commercial dimension is nothing but prudery. How is the commercial dimension, intrinsic to many ICH elements, articulated with the heritage one in UNESCO narratives? How is the “paradox” of alienable heritage affecting our representations and uses of it? How does the definition of heritage as a community resource, rather than a national symbol, affect its commodification? I argue that the embarrassment prompted among heritage policy-makers and implementers by the overlapping of commercial and heritage values reveals the liminal nature of ICH and its potential to mirror broader social, economic and political aspects of neoliberal globalisation.