Museums on the Frontline: Safeguarding our Living Heritage

The world of museums conjures up images of stuff, objects, things that are tangible. However the value of this stuff is in what we know about it. The intangible stuff… what was it used for? Who used it? Or even what is it?  The intangible aspects of museum collections have great relevance to our lives today as part of our Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).

Fair Isle knitting is a great example of this, such as the knowledge around the traditional patterns, methods and tools to produce this beautiful work.  The Nationally Significant Collection at Shetland Museum and Archives is a tremendous resource, which is actively used in the practice of the Fair Isle knitting traditions. They are a key partner along with Shetland Textile Museum in Shetland Wool week, which is a celebration of all things associated with this knitting tradition, including the sheep! It attracts an international following and safeguards the traditions.

Examples of Fair Isle knitting

The tradition of peat cutting is another example. The Nationally Significant Collection at the Highland Folk Museum houses a large collection of tools associated with peat cutting from different areas.  It’s a great resource for those looking to replicate traditional peat cutting methods and tools, combining the knowledge of both technique and regional variance with a focus on environmental sustainability. In both cases, the tangible museum collections are being used to safeguard the intangible traditions and practices and there are many more examples like this across Scotland.

Sustainable peat cutting

ICH is an integral part of our work and the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH provides a framework for our activity in this area.  MGS was the first of only two UK NGO’s to be accredited as expert advisors to UNESCO on the Convention and we sit on the first Steering Committee for the ICH NGO Forum. We cannot nominate ICH practices to the Convention’s representative list in the same way we have done for the World Heritage Convention (with six from Scotland on the that list) as the UK has not ratified the 2003 ICH Convention. However, we are still a participant in the Convention and have channelled our energies into contributing to the future direction of the Convention, actively participating in international meetings, and showcasing best practice from Scotland. Scotland was one of the first countries to develop a completely inclusive approach: “ICH in Scotland” embraces all practices, including migrant community ICH. In partnership with Edinburgh Napier University we developed the first wiki-based approach to setting up an inventory of ICH. This approach reflects the community ownership of the ICH; it is an integral part of this Convention that it is the practitioners and communities who decide if the ICH continues, not the state or academic specialists.

In November 2015, MGS delivered a ground-breaking symposium – For Everyone: The Role of Living Culture in Identities and Sustainable Community Development. The event brought together practitioners, academics and policy makers, including UNESCO, to think about the future challenges facing ICH and the Convention. The findings from this event are now available as a suite of resources, the videos of which you can find below. MGS took the findings from the event and inputted directly into the Convention helping to inform the development of the Basic Texts for the Convention, which now contains a chapter on ethical principles.

Museums in Scotland make a vibrant and important contribution to the safeguarding of ICH and to the global thinking around the 2003 Convention, in which we will continue to be an active participant.

Watch our video resources on ICH

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