Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Knowledge and Expression as Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO has a program for the protection of intangible cultural heritage, and indeed is the repository for the international Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which entered into force in April 2006. As of February 2007, 75 States had deposited their instrument of ratification,approval or acceptance of the Convention with UNESCO.

It seems to me that the body of mankind's knowledge is perhaps the most important part of our intangible cultural heritage. I speak of modern scientific and technological knowledge, as well as traditional knowledge, and the knowledge of local communities all over the world. It includes many other forms of knowledge as well, such as the knowledge of legal systems, political systems and that embodied in economic institutions such as markets.

I was thinking in passing of some cultural knowledge that we have, and know is not true. Think about Santa Claus! In our society, we all know the story of Santa and his reindeer (including Rudolph), the workshop at the North Pole, and the need to place stockings on the mantle with milk and cookies. None of it is literally true, but that knowledge plays an important role in American culture.

That body of knowledge is growing more rapidly than ever before. The knowledge in that corpus is also depreciating more rapidly than ever before, as the world changes more rapidly than in the past, as we discover new things and discard outmoded beliefs and ideas, and as we forget (for example, mankind is forgetting how to speak many of its languages).

We think of the tangible cultural heritage -- buildings, monuments, etc. -- as durable and even permanent. The pyramids are thousands of years old. The intangible seems less permanent, but I suggest that we retain knowledge of agriculture and other arts that is older than the pyramids!

We winnow the stock of knowledge in a continuing process, sometimes tossing out the good with the bad, but surprisingly we as a species have been able to hang on to some important knowledge for millennia!

I think UNESCO's intangible heritage program is more directed at expressions of knowledge rather than knowledge itself -- literature, music, art, craft, and the like.

As with knowledge, we discard a lot of that material, but we manage to save a great deal for a very long time. We have the works of Shakespeare and Cervantes even though we have few physical artifacts from their time. Indeed, we have the bible and Greek and Roman literature from thousands of years in the past.

Of course, we have evolved a complex set of institutions, including schools, professional societies, libraries, symphonies, and museums to screen and select intangible expressions from the past and save and keep alive the best!

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