Tangible or intangible?

As we talked about in post number 1, the first and easiest way to think about heritage is as a collection of … well, of stuff. Houses, museum artefacts, monuments; anything with an information board where someone will try to sell you a postcard on the way out.

We’re not here to take the easy option.

The one and only thing all this stuff has in common is that we think it is heritage. There is no way to measure something’s heritage-ness, no special glowing aura that signals one archaeological find to be worthy of a glass case while another is left in a field.

There are many ways we choose our heritage. We like things that are old, because they remind us of how similar humans who lived thousands of years ago are to humans now. We like things that are rare and different, because they remind us of how times have changed and how differently we live to our ancestors thousands of years ago. We like things that come from certain areas, because we feel that, somehow, they are ours as well, that we have a personal link to their history. And we like things that are connected to famous people, because we feel that through these objects, we are connected ourselves to the reality of their existence, although we can never meet our heroes ourselves.*

What we like about all these objects are stories. It’s obvious in the way we talk about them – what can they teach us? What can they tell us about their world, their journeys, their creators and owners?

So what happens when you have the stories without the objects?

Legends, folk songs, superstitions, dances, customs, skills… They can teach us about history, about their provenances and creators, about the worlds our ancestors inhabited. But they cannot be put in a glass case. In fact, it has been suggested that recording these non-things for posterity (a job done by the World Heritage List’s baby sister, the ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity‘) freezes dynamic social phenomena into static objects, which change from being the property of those who use and perform them to existing in the realm of curators and experts, who abstract them from their original contexts and meanings.

It’s not all serious folklore or Morris Dancing or religious rituals, either. As millenials the intangible legacy of our generation, surrounded by the infinite ephemera of the internet, may end up characterised by jokes starting ‘One does not simply….’ or ‘God Karen, you can’t just ask someone…’

To be intangible literally means that something cannot be touched. It has no physical presence, does not exist on the same dimensional places as the artefacts and sites we visit as heritage. Therefore, they cannot be recorded, preserved and measured as physical things can. But still, what to do when the alternative is perhaps to lose pieces of history forever? Are they worth preserving if they no longer belong in modern societies?

However untouchable intangible heritage is, it builds our mental worlds from the first nursery rhyme  we hear. Take a moment to think – what heritage do you have stored in your mind? What words, music and actions link you to the worlds of the past?

*Please be aware that this blog currently assumes the non-existence of time travel, though I may come back to it later.


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