About the UNESCO convention

Cultural heritage is about more than buildings and monuments. Languages, creative arts, dance, social customs, rituals, traditional crafts and practical skills related to nature are also part of our cultural heritage.

Since the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage went into effect in 1972, the tangible cultural heritage has been legally protected. However, in recent decades there has been growing concern about the lack of protection of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. Due to its very nature, the intangible cultural heritage has been almost invisible in relation to the tangible. With the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage from 2003, this area has become a UNESCO priority.

A convention is a legal document

A convention is a legal document that obliges those states which ratify or in some other way officially endorse the document to fulfil the duties that the convention imposes on them.

The convention is a document that says something about how member states should design and implement policies in, for example, the cultural heritage field. The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was adopted in 2003. Norway ratified the convention in 2007.

Purpose of the convention

The convention has been drawn up to ensure respect for and increase awareness of the intangible cultural heritage and its importance. The convention is meant to act as a supplement to UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage from 1972. The purpose of the convention was to strike a balance between tangible and intangible cultural heritage within UNESCO’s normative activities in the field, both nationally and internationally. The term “intangible cultural heritage” is still unfamiliar to many. However, since the convention was ratified, it has steadily become more widely known.

In addition, the convention aimed to facilitate processes that preserve the intangible cultural heritage as it is expressed in, for example, the following five areas:

  • Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a means of expressing intangible cultural heritage
  • Creative arts
  • Social customs, rituals and festivities
  • Knowledge and practices relating to nature and the universe
  • Traditional crafts

Read UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage here.

Definition of intangible cultural heritage

The convention defines intangible cultural heritage as:

“… practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.

This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

You will find more information about what intangible cultural heritage is on UNESCO’s website.

Practitioners have the power of definition

In this context, “safeguarding” means measures aimed at ensuring that knowledge and actions are preserved and passed on. Practitioners and tradition bearers who are members of a community, society or group play a crucial role in defining what must be recognised as intangible cultural heritage. In some cases, individuals are also entitled to define their intangible cultural heritage.

The power of definition is accorded to practitioners and the communities in which the cultural expressions are practised. This is an important premise in the effort to safeguard and preserve intangible cultural heritage, and has implications for how the identification and documentation process takes place.

UNESCO’s lists and registers

One of the tools used to preserve aspects of intangible cultural heritage in different parts of the world has been the creation of international lists and registers. There are three international lists relating to intangible cultural heritage. The lists are intended to fulfil different purposes:

  • Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: This list is intended to ensure that the world’s intangible cultural heritage becomes more visible. It is also meant to raise awareness of the importance of intangible cultural heritage, as well as promote dialogue which respects the convention.
  • List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding: This list provides an overview of intangible cultural heritage that is in danger of disappearing. Its purpose is to enable the establishment of appropriate safeguarding measures to ensure that knowledge and practices are preserved and passed on.
  • Register of Good Safeguarding Practices:
    This register is intended to provide an overview of and spread information about programmes, projects and activities that safeguard the preservation of intangible cultural heritage and thereby uphold the principles and objectives of the convention. The particular needs of developing countries must be taken into account.

Read more about UNESCO’s lists and registers.

What is Norway doing with regard to the convention?

Norway ratified the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2007. Read Proposition No. 73 (2005-2006) to the Norwegian Storting – On consent to ratification of UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of 17 October 2003.

Arts Council Norway is responsible for implementing UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Read more about Arts Council Norway’s work in the area of intangible cultural heritage here.

The Norwegian National Commission for UNESCO covers UNESCO’s four areas of responsibility: education, science, culture and communication. The Commission acts as an adviser to the Norwegian authorities and liaises between civil society, various expert environments and the government. Read more about the Norwegian National Commission’s activities with respect to intangible cultural heritage here.