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Intangible cultural heritage

Traditions, knoweldge, craftsmanship techniques  
Photo: © UNESCO/James Muriuki

Cooperation with researchers and universities

UNESCO attaches a fundamental role to the scientific examination of cultural heritage for the documentation, safeguarding and further development of the intangible cultural heritage. From the very beginning, scientists from different disciplines have accompanied the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and its implementation. Their influence has been essential in making living practices visible as an important part of cultural heritage, in drafting the Convention text that is valid today, and in researching the Convention and living practices that continue to contribute to the shaping and development of the intangible cultural heritage as a whole. Representatives from science and research - e.g. relevant UNESCO chairs - contribute their expertise as members of the UNESCO Evaluation Body and as advisors at international and national level. Cooperation with researchers and universities also provides important impetus for the implementation of the Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. The commissioning and monitoring of studies, such as the one entitled "Traditional Healing Methods in Austria" by Michaela Noseck-Licul or "Traditional Crafts as Intangible Cultural Heritage and Economic Factor in Austria" by Roman Sandgruber, Heidrun Bichler-Ripfel and Maria Walcher, contribute to making the importance of living heritage visible and promote the preservation and further development of corresponding practices.

The Commission's cooperation with universities is an effective way of communicating the perspectives and contents of the Convention to (prospective) researchers and stimulating the study of intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage benefits in many ways from scientific debate beyond documentation and recording:

  • For example, scientists can develop new technologies or methods to improve the conservation of intangible cultural heritage. Bearers could then use this knowledge to better protect and safeguard cultural heritage.
  • In addition, the knowledge gained through research can help make cultural heritage more accessible to a wider public. This in turn can strengthen the understanding and appreciation of cultural heritage in society.
  • Furthermore, the scientific examination of elements, as well as intangible cultural heritage in general, is of great importance in its reflection, impact and development.

Conversely, the diversity of living heritage offers great potential for scientific and critical engagement. The contribution that intangible cultural heritage makes to sustainable development in the sense of the 2030 Agenda is particularly important. Practices such as dry-stone wall building, traditional irrigation or knowledge of avalanche hazards, among others, are examples of skills that demonstrably counteract the effects of climate change and contribute to the protection and conservation of the local ecosystem. UNESCO illustrates this, among other things, with a specially created visual tool, which can be accessed at the following link: https://ich.unesco.org/en/dive&display=sdg#tabs.

In the meantime, intangible cultural heritage has been included in the curricula of some universities, for example the "Heritage Studies" courses and studies, which were previously limited to tangible cultural heritage and are increasingly expanding to include the intangible dimension.

Examples of university cooperation in Austria

All in all, there are numerous ways in which science and intangible cultural heritage can benefit from each other. It is all the more gratifying that the Austrian Commission for UNESCO has been able to enter into various cooperations with universities since the ratification of the Convention. In 2015, for example, this led to a lecture series at the Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology at the University of Vienna, which dealt with the interactions of culture, politics and economics in the valorisation of culture in tourism and regional development and brought together various actors from the field of intangible cultural heritage. In cooperation with the same institute, a field internship including a methodology seminar took place in 2021-2022, in which prospective researchers applied ethnographic methods learned during their studies (participant observation, interviews, etc.) to research and reflect on practices and aspects of intangible cultural heritage in Austria, for example, using cultural and social anthropological perspectives such as intersectionality and representation of "culture". The results of this research project were published in the form of a brochure.

But not only ethnological or anthropological fields of study are important cooperation partners. Natural science subjects play an equally important role, such as ethnobotany, which deals with the relationship between people and plants. The connection between ethnobotany and intangible cultural heritage and the contribution of ethnobotany to the safeguarding of traditional knowledge were discussed in several summer schools.

However, these are only a few examples of how cooperation between science and living heritage can be mutually enriching. Theoretically, there are hardly any limits to the possibilities of cooperation with universities. If you are interested in scientific research on the topic or elements of intangible cultural heritage, you can contact us at any time at the following e-mail address: oeuk@unesco.at.