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Protecting Culture from the Passage of Time

Sankirtana, chanting performed in India's bhakti devotional traditions, has recently been designated as an "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO.

As our world evolves, so too does our culture. The practices and expressions that are handed down through generations often face an uphill battle for survival. Smartphones, for example, render the Chinese abacus obsolete, and with it the benefits that the practice  (Chinese Zhusuan) confers: stronger attention spans and better memory in children.

But one organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) aims to loosen time’s Darwinian grip on customs both threatened and deemed worth saving.

Each year, a UNESCO committee meets to review nominations for “intangible cultural heritage.”

Separate from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an intangible cultural heritage includes:

traditions or expressions, such as performing arts, social practices, rituals, knowledge and practices concerning the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. [It]…is a living form of heritage that provides a sense of identity and belonging in relation to our own cultures.

In December, 30 nominations were approved for 2013. Click here for the list. Here are a handful that made the cut:

Once a practice receives this designation, how exactly is it safeguarded from falling off the cultural cliff?  UNESCO is somewhat vague in explaining it, but does indicate a focus on identification, research, increasing visibility within educational institutions and promoting information through media.

Our cultural identities are rooted in webs of history, applicable, or not, to our modern lives. UNESCO’s designations, in this regard, do us a service as lifelong learners yearning to know more about ourselves. But whether the international behemoth’s role in “selecting” and protecting cultural practices is ethical is another topic worth exploring later.

More information on qualifying criteria for the designation can be found here.
photo credit: ISKCON desire tree via photopin cc