©Renato S. Rastrollo / NCCA -ICH /UNESCO
Following the class last week on the World Heritage Center, students this week presented a class on the remainder of the Culture program of UNESCO. That program has helped to prevent illegal traffic in cultural artifacts such as art and archaeological objects, to protect artifacts during conflict and to repatriate artifacts that have been illegally removed from their rightful place. Perhaps the most important aspect of the convention is that it has made museums and dealers more careful about handling such objects; having helped dry up the demand for such goods, the convention has reduced the incentives for those who would remove cultural objects from their legitimate homes.
More recently an emphasis has been added on intangible cultural heritage. This enabled the students to show a clip from the Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity website. Much of the UNESCO coverage of these intangible aspects of culture is focused on things which seem picturesque to our graduate students, and indeed would seem so to most people who might read this blog.
The students discussed the fact that American culture also distinguishes us from other nations, including the culture of our institutions of higher education. Americans are known internationally not only for its popular culture (movies, television, music) but also for an ideology based on belief in free markets and democracy, the remains of its frontier culture, church attendance, and emphasis on civil society.
It was pointed out that not all aspects of cultural heritage are worthy of being maintained. America has a heritage of slavery, racism and prejudice which many people feel must be overcome. Indeed, UNESCO's efforts to foster a culture of peace recognize that some cultural changes are to be desired. Thus the efforts to protect intangible culture must be seen as empowering peoples more fully to choose the cultural changes that they will foster.
There was also a discussion of the efforts of UNESCO to protect threatened languages, including demonstration of the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. Again, there was a recognition that living languages change and develop, but that there are thousands of languages used by only small populations that may eventually die out, with a loss of the oral heritage that they convey.
The discussion recognized that UNESCO does recognize the role of culture in development, and especially seeks to help nations to recognize the appropriate role for policies protecting cultural diversity within their development policy portfolio. In this respect, UNESCO has a program fostering cultural industries (such as music, art and crafts), and of course UNESCO has an important role in international copyright law and protection.
Both the presenters and the audience found the materials so interesting that time grew short, and there was little time to discuss all of the cultural activities, Thus the discussion of the Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage had to be cut too short to adequately introduce that important topic. (Did you know that sea level has risen 100 feet since the height of the last ice age, and that as a result it has been very difficult to investigate the hypothesis that an important route for human migration to the Americas was down the coasts in the final stages of the ice age.)
All in all a stimulating topic and discussion!