Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Robben Island, South Africa



- Sub-theme A: The Intangible Dimension - Concepts, Identification and Assessment
- Sub-theme B: Impact of Change and Diverse Perceptions
- Sub theme C: Conserving and Managing Intangible Heritage - methods

Progress towards producing a UNESCO Convention on intangible heritage is accelerating. A decade ago ICOMOS accepted the incompleteness of cultural heritage if the tangible aspect alone was taken on board. The truism, well enunciated in sociological principles, is that cultural heritage is a synchronised relationship involving society (systems of interactions connecting people), norms (behaviours, rules, etc) and values (ideas e.g. belief systems that define relative importance). Such norms (symbols, technologies, objects) representing the content of culture are therefore the tangible expressions and evidence of the intangible values thus establishing a symbiotic relationship between the tangible and the intangible.

That indeed is the resounding message in the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity adopted by all the Member States of UNESCO in 2001. "Intangible Heritage (the map or compass through which human beings interpret, select, reproduce and disseminate their cultural heritage) is a tool through which tangible heritage (the physical inheritance of societies) is defined and expressed and through which the inert landscape of objects and monuments is turned into a living archive of cultural values..". Thus intangible heritage must be seen as the larger framework within which tangible heritage takes on its shape and significance.

The symbiotic relationship is demonstrated among the Dogons of Mali where the Togu Na is the first structure built when a village is founded. It serves as the centre for story tellers, a court and a place where the ceremonial and farming calendar is decided and where the wisdom of ancestors is passed down to the young by the elders. (1) Among the Lobi of Burkina Faso, scattered houses centre on the dithil (earthen altar) whose area of authenticity defies a territorial unit. Lessons learned from nature, and parallels between the spiritual world and the real world, influence the buildings and how architectural problems are solved. The baobab tree where hunters once sheltered is a shell from the holy river in which it is said, “White people lived”. An iron rod on the roof picks up alarm signals and passes them on to the ancestral spirits in the living area. The ancestors in turn alert the altars outside. The entire system of forces is directed to the earthen altar, which is the supreme generator of the community. (2)

That is as it should be in Africa where the soul determines the body but need it be a case for Africa only? The stave churches with their distinctive architecture, lavishly carved portals, multiplicity of gables and dragon heads perched on roof ridges transmit a similar message: “the essence of the Norwegian spirit”.(3)

While we ponder on potential issues that arise from here, higher forums have been caught in the quandary of what to do if these issues are not addressed head-on. The 24th Session of World Heritage Committee was one such victim. Almost stealthily the Rietveld Shroeder house in Utrecht (Rietveld Schroderhuis) stole the show when debate centred on whether this house - a manifesto of the De Stijl movement, paying strict adherence to “Neo Plasticism”, the first declaration of these ideas and thus, an architectural manifestation of De Stijlism –should be recognised for its strong intangible values (criterion (vi) of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, UNESCO, WHC 99/2 March 1999). In a landmark decision, despite the vehement opposition of ICOMOS, the intangible values were subordinated to the tangible and the monument was put on the world heritage list on the basis of criterion (i) - as an icon of the Modern Movement in architecture and criterion (ii) - for its radical approach to design and use of space. The irony of the decision will not be lost to many: Acceptance on basis of criteria (i), “as an outstanding expression of human creative genius in its purity of ideas and concepts as developed by the De Stijl movement”. Rejection on criterion (vi), “as a manifesto of the ideas and concepts of the De Stijl” (!!).

The cultural landscape of Sukur (Nigeria) is a product of such a movement albeit in a different sense. At Sukur, the Hidi palace perched at the top of the mountain range is a visual metaphor that mirrors the Hidi (the spiritual/temporal leader) as a wife to the rest of society. Through the annual harvest festivals, this perspective is given ideological vitality and validity resulting in a cultural landscape that mirrors the social structure, belief systems and an economic order that continues now as it was centuries ago.(4)

These few disparate examples bring to the fore the currency of issues that this theme seeks to address. They also highlight the local, regional and international dimension of the intangible heritage read in the context of monuments and sites. The decision of the 24th session of the World Heritage Committee (Cairns, Australia, December 2000) to review the ill-defined terrain as exposed by the Rietveld Schrodehuis case was a landmark one. The following 25th session of the World Heritage Bureau (Paris, June 2001) noted that the intangible and tangible elements were, in many instances inseparable: the devaluation of the spirit at the expense of the body was thus anathema. The Bureau recommended to the World Heritage Committee (Helsinki, December 2001) an affirmative position for the intangible dimension of heritage to be reflected in the revised Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention. UNESCO is also addressing the issue, albeit in the context of the intangible heritage per-se. Serious efforts are underway to produce a Convention on Intangible Heritage to be adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO. The theme of the General Assembly is thus not only timely, but it will also make the 14th General Assembly the summum bonum point for the various regional discussions that have been or are still taking place e.g. the Primer encuentro sudamericano sobre partrimonio inmaterial (1997); Segundo encuentro sobre patrimonio inmaterial (1999); and the Sacred Mountains conference held in Japan (September 2001). The 12th General Assembly of ICOMOS formally accepted the Nara Document on Authenticity, now it is time to test and address the issues arising from there. Such an opportunity presents itself in the theme of the Victoria Falls General Assembly.

The Symposium will have 3 sub-themes:


Professor Ralph Pettman speaks of the concept of heritage as one that is objectified and reified, “thing-fying the world” – defining a concept of the past as a place, as a thing with other things in it and consequently centered on the creation of a “world museum” (5) (museumification) of “outstanding universal values”. He postulates, however, another concept of heritage that is not one of "thing", not one of tangible products per se, but one of intangible processes such as cultural practices and traditional skills - particularly when he draws from Japanese examples.

On the same note, Alain Sinou writes of the problems of such a “thing-fied”/reified approach when it comes to some categories of heritage e.g. slave routes (cultural itineraries). The meeting of experts on cultural itineraries (24 - 25 November 1994, Madrid) called for a definition of heritage routes as “composed of tangible elements of which the cultural significance comes from exchanges and a multi-dimensional dialogue across countries or regions illustrating the interaction of movement, along the route in space and time." (6)

In the view of Sinou this “reified” approach would face practical problems if applied to Ouidah where, with the exception of the Portuguese fort, there is little physical trace of slavery and “no other tangible item exists that can recall this activity. The slaves merely passed through and the physical investments such as enclosures and tents to shelter them until they were put aboard the slave ships were reduced to the minimum”. The situation is even more complex when voodoo cults in Benin are considered, for they do not present any special features as buildings, nor do their locations result from specific spatial rules since most of them shift several times in the city e.g. upon the appointment of a new priest. In fact the temple itself is often not the site of the most significant rituals, so the temples are not necessarily the most revered places.(7)

These issues and many more should be covered in the sub-theme which addresses among other areas: Philosophical and theoretical aspects, including problem definition and identity taking into account differences in cultures and backgrounds; the locus in terms of typology and the spirit of place as captured through various media, particularly through primary sources.

Suggested topics

Concepts and definitions

• Values: tangible – intangible; historical vs. a-historical in a place; authenticity & sincerity of ideas and traditions; integrity referred to tangible & intangible aspects of a place
• Cultural diversity & heritage diversity: common vs. exceptional in a place; imitation vs. innovation; uniqueness
• Traditional vs. Modern: traditional continuity; archaeological significance, museum aspects.

Types of places

• Cultural landscapes: associated, relict, continuous, cultural routes/itineraries
• Sacred vs. nature: forests, mountains, rocks, lakes, rivers; burial grounds; sacred vs. biological diversity, natural temples
• Intangible dimension: settlements, built structures, communities; topography, land-use, agriculture.

Memory and meaning

• Spirit of place, genius loci: the essential character, nature, or qualities of a place
• Memories: reminiscences, associations, oral traditions, song-lines
• Characterisation & meaning of a place.

People and skills

• People: living national treasures; memories, know-how
• Skills: roles of handicraft, traditional construction, art, cult objects.


The Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) are lost. The world was shocked at this wanton iconoclastic act that took place on 12 March 2001. To many, the two Buddha statues represented, “peace, tolerance and charity for all. So great was their inspiration that they served as the model for a complex of equal magnificence far to the east at Tunhuang, in western China, where the two branches of the famous Silk Road converged. Throughout Central Asia their influence was manifest… in the Buddha complexes harmoniously fused with the styles of the east and west to produce works of consummate beauty”.(8)

Pierre Lafrance, who was sent to Afghanistan to persuade the country's Taliban rulers to reverse their decision to destroy the ancient statues, speaks of the desperate attempts to make the Taliban see this heritage in more positive light. However, to the Taliban these treasures were “creation of a creature: to create a creature is a sin,” and so ran their argument. The whole issue was put in “licit” and “illicit” terms and consequently no discussion was possible unless you saw things from the Taliban perspective of the Sharia, “They seem to have crossed the line into magic”.

Much along the same lines, in many parts of Africa sacred remains and objects were taken away from their original locus, either because they represented the “work of the devil/demon” or as in the case of Ambohimanga in Madagascar, the colonial power decided to transfer the royal remains to Antananarivo to remove the anthropic environment of a site and thus abolish its sacredness. Under the sub-theme, Impact of Change and Diverse Perspectives such issues will be discussed under the banner: Challenges and threats in local and global contexts.

Suggested topics

Traditional vs. modernity

• Local tradition vs. globalisation: processes of change, transformation, and modernisation
• Disruption of relationships: between intangible & tangible: loss of meaning; rejection; oblivion
• Development: cultural sustainability; tourism, 'museumification'.

Conflicts of meaning and interpretations

• Layers of meaning: contested interpretations
• Religious, social and political intolerance and destruction
• Ethnic cleansing, conflicts of beliefs.


When the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park of Australia was originally put on the world heritage list, it was solely on the basis of its tangible natural values. Only later, in 1994, was it revised to include the cultural component, mostly arising from Aboriginal intangible values of the site. The management of the site has accordingly included these elements. In their observation, Albert Kumirai et al (9) note that the natural wonders of the Victoria Falls World Heritage site determine the management ethos for the site with focus on the aesthetic values.

However, the same environment is perceived differently by the traditional local communities who see the spirit of Mosi-oa-Tunya: spirits that provided people with water, fish and other aquatic resources and spirits that spoke through the thunder. To the locals, Victoria Falls is now an abandoned home with no life. From that perspective the current management regime is inappropriate and inadequate.

Suggested topics

Processes of identification and documentation

• Processes of identification & reading of places, sites and communities: past and present
• Methods of recording and documentation; memorising
• Interpretation of the intangible dimensions, values & associations in a place
• Assessment of the dynamics of impact and change.

Evaluation and characterisation

• Evaluation and assessment of the significance of a place
• Statements of character and significance
• Response to universal needs; outstanding universal value.

Protection and strategies of management.

• Methods of protection and conservation; strategies of management of places; culturally sustainable development
• Processes of transmission and regeneration of intangible values of a place in a community; social-cultural involvement of population
• Visitor management: presentation vs. 'non-presentation'.

Dawson Munjeri
Former Vice President of ICOMOS for Africa

1. UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Africa revisited. UNESCO. Paris 1998: 11.
2. UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Africa revisited. UNESCO. Paris 1998: 14.
3. Hauglib, R. Old Art and monumental buildings in Norway, Oslo. Dreyers Forag.n.d. p.v.
4. Eboreime, O.J. "The Sukur and Benin cultural landscapes as case studies on current issues of authenticity and integrity", ed. Saoma-Forero G. Authenticity and Integrity in an African context. UNESCO. Paris 2001: 90-94.otes:
5. Pettman, R. The Japanese concept of heritage in its global politico-cultural context. Asian Studies Institute Working Paper 17. Wellington, March 2001 1-5.
6. Ministerio de Cultura/ICOMOS International, Routes as part of our cultural heritage Madrid, 24-25 Nov. 1994
7. Sinou, A. "Architectural and urban heritage: The Example of the City of Ouidah, Benin", ed. Serageldin I and Taborov, J. Culture and development in Africa World Bank. Washington DC. 1994:298
8. UNESCO,"The lost treasures of the Afghans", Sources No. 134 May 2001: 4
9. Kumirai, A. Muringaniza, J. Munyikwa, Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya : issues and values, ed. Saoma-Forero, G. Authenticity and integrity in an African context: UNESCO Paris 2001 p.111


Dernière mise à jour: 05/06/2003