Reporting from “Can Scotland Play a Leading Role in Defining Heritage?”

by Emma Hill
What is Scotland’s relationship with the UNESCO Charter for the Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage?  What should it be?
How can ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ be defined?  Should it be defined at all?  Can ‘heritage’ be split into ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ features?  Should it be split?
Who defines a ‘heritage’ project?  What does ‘community’ mean?  What is the sector’s role in supporting heritage projects? Is it possible for institutions to avoid getting in the way?
Can Scotland Play a Leading Role in Defining Heritage was the first SML Thought Leadership Event organised by the Intercultural Research Centre.  The event saw speakers from across Scotland’s heritage sector come together to discuss a range of issues facing cultural heritages in Scotland today. A full description and programme of the evening can be found here.
‘Heritage is a resource rooted in the past that goes forward to the present and looks to the future’ (Mairead Nic Craith)
Professor Máiréad Nic Craith began the discussion by highlighting how understandings of heritage have developed from an initial emphasis on ‘tangible’ heritage (such as the World Heritage sites), considered of ‘outstanding cultural value’ to a re-emphasis on both the tangible and intangible heritages deemed ‘of cultural significance’ by the communities that create them.  Joanne Orr spoke of the work of Museum Galleries Scotland (MGS), the only accredited NGO in the UK to be involved in the Convention for Cultural Heritage, and emphasised that Scotland’s position in the Convention will remain problematic as long as the Convention is not ratified by a Westminster government.  She questioned whether Westminster’s lack of involvement in the Convention meant that the UK is losing its edge when it comes to thinking about heritage.
Luke Wormald detailed the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to nurture cultural heritages in Scotland.  He noted that the desire to protect cultural heritages could lead to isolating it from its communities, and explained how, through an emphasis on people and place, the Scottish Government hoped to avoid this.  Janet Archer drew on her experience at Creative Scotland to highlight the importance of people’s emotion and reaction when they encounter arts in Scotland.  She argued that the ‘intangible benefits of arts practices fuel who we are and how we feel in a profound way’ and re-stated the importance of cultural heritage to Creative Scotland.  Colin McLean noted that the Heritage Lottery Fund ‘refuses to define heritage’, seeking its definition instead from applicants and projects.  He argued that the wealth of applications received by the Heritage Lottery Fund means that engaging with heritage in Scotland is ‘not only desirable but unavoidable’.
Questions from the floor prompted discussions about ways in which ICH might perpetuate inequalities in terms of gender, language and migrant communities.  The audience also highlighted the potential of ICH for community healing.  The discussion concluded with the observation that although heritage remains an undervalued subject in UK universities, it has strong potential for the future.
Chair, Ann Packard, brought the evening to a close by encouraging the audience to view the UNESCO pages to see the ‘most remarkable list’ of tangible and intangible heritages.
 Further discussion about any of the issues raised at the event would be very welcome!
 @hw_irc was live-tweeting from the event: a timeline of tweets can be found here: https://storify.com/Gebeleisis/sml-thought-leadership-event

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