Heritage Portfolio Management
The social utility of intangible cultural heritage
The preservation of cultural heritage in a context of globalization, immigration, and rapid social transformation is an important element of good governance in a mature democracy. It fosters acceptance and appreciation of historical diversity, and understanding of the tapestry of influences that shape identity today.
Cleansed of any archaic triumphalist or repressive elements that would impair the enjoyment of the rights of others, and assiduously cultivated in an environment that celebrates human dignity, freedom and rights, the residue of cultural heritage that can be shared in a pluralist society promotes inter-communal understanding and adds value to the quality of democracy.
In so far as it recalls a diversity of foreign influences in history, it can serve to enrich the bonds that can be celebrated today with those communities of origin, and thereby form part of the fabric of trans-boundary and international relations. The preservation and promotion of cultural heritage is therefore an important element of social cohesion and of the maintenance of mutual international confidence.
In fact, the ownership and display of archaic and obsolete objects cultivates the memory of the past and contributes to the preservation of culture and history – the very raison d’etre of many museums. Folklore and other elements of intangible cultural heritage are equally worthy of preservation and are the object of a UNESCO Convention.
The early efforts of the Irish Government to preserve recognition of ancient Gaelic chieftaincies by officially granting courtesy recognition of “Chiefs of the Name” to their direct descendants, including sometimes with territorial designations, are an example of such an effort to preserve intangible cultural heritage, even if the effort in recent years has led to some controversy over the basis (primogeniture rather than tanistry), and over the authenticity of genealogy and descent in some cases.
Nonetheless, the failure of honesty of some claimants or due diligence in a few cases is hardly a reason to suspend the practice or to de-legitimize the totality of bone fide cases. One would hardly abolish national institutions on the basis that a few elements are found corrupt, but rather prosecute offenders so that the credibility of the institution and public trust are maintained following an independent investigation.
One of the bigger challenges today however, is to peel away the onion-layers of archaic and sometimes conflicting laws, the quandaries of centuries of turmoil, the issues of desuetude and functional obsolescence, the clashes of culture and the residue of latent prejudice that often lies beneath the surface of an otherwise more egalitarian and democratic society. A particular challenge is to know when analogies with law, heritage, and customary practice in England or Scotland apply, and when they frequently do not, even if for many centuries the same Crown reigned throughout these islands.
A topic of historical research such as this almost becomes an exercise in Husserlian phenomenology, as one tries to bracket the non-essential in epoche, and get to the core of what was a historic title, how did it evolve, what is it today, what value can it have, and why should anyone pay the slightest attention to these matters?
It becomes an excursion into the museum of the intangible, a grail quest. But if Percival remembers his purpose and asks the right question, what then for the Fisher King?
More on this conundrum in the near future.... but for now, the accelerating pace of global change, erosion of old traditions and emergence of new "norms", as well as the socially-transformative effect of large-scale emigration, migration, and immigration, and the invasive impact of digital technology and social media, all represent forces that affect our ancient cultures and heritage.
For this reason, I am a strong advocate of the adherence and ratification nationally of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003). In the Irish context, this could include the preservation of our armorial and heraldic heritage; our ancient sports and music, the customs and ceremonies of our ancient clans, and of leadership and community exemplified in various noble, military, civic and spiritual traditions, and of family histories, pedigrees, charters, deeds, and other archives. In this regard, I am delighted that after some years of lobbying, including correspondence by myself, Ireland has ratified the UNESCO Convention on 22 December 2015, and has submitted for registration the ancient sport of Hurling, and the playing of the Uilleann Pipes. Now, we can do more than this........