Midas Touch & Whispered Words
Intangible Cultural Heritage in Switzerland
The concept of intangible cultural heritage (hereinafter "ICH") has been in circulation since the 1970s and has spawned a number of measures, culminating in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is the fruit of the realization that previous measures to protect heritage have unduly favored rich, industrialized countries, with their monumental constructions, over countries in the "South" in which cultural products often take more intangible forms: rituals, music, belief-systems, etc, that deserve international protection.
Switzerland ratified this Convention on July 18th, 2008. Under its terms, the government is obliged to create an inventory of Swiss ICH. Given the relative novelty of the ICH paradigm, its broad political mission and the latitude granted to signatory states, one would think that the application of the UNESCO Convention in the Swiss context would be open to widely diverse interpretations. In fact, a certain number of commonsense understandings of ICH, promoted by associations for folk traditions, are largely determining the ways in which Switzerland positions itself in relation to its treaty obligations. The broadest aim of this multidisciplinary research project is to keep reflections on ICH open at this initial stage by critically examining what it might mean, whom it might benefit and what might be worth inventorying and preserving under its auspices.
The project brings together research teams from the Universities of Basel, Lausanne and Neuchâtel, the Museum of Ethnography (Neuchâtel), the CNRS (Laboratoire d'anthropologie et d'histoire de l'institution de la culture, Paris) and the Haute Ecole-Arc (Institut horlogerie et création).
ICH in Switzerland : the Journey
- In Switzerland, the management of political, linguistic, religious and historical differences between the Swiss cantons – which take the form of stereotyped “cultural differences”, most prominently through the ready-to-think metaphor of the “Rösti Curtain” of “Röstigraben” – appeals to the same rhetoric of respect for “cultural diversity” that the Convention invokes in its efforts to safeguard ICH against the pressures of globalization. The similarities between this domestic political agenda and UNESCO’s far more radical program for the preservation of “ other ways of life ” represents a happy coincidence for Switzerland, and one of our most interesting findings to date.
- ICH in Switzerland is a hybrid, multidimensional, virtually infinite object. More precisely, it is not an “object” at all, but a way in which certain social actors perceive and represent slices of historical or contemporary reality, and infuse them with virtue. The bureaucratic ethnography we conducted details the processes by which this non-object was given political and administrative form. These processes are necessarily arbitrary, incomplete and exclusionary. They are also successful, creating an object – a website – that circulates with perfect legitimacy in national and international arenas.
- So-called “ordinary” social actors entertain ambivalent and complex relations to the ICH paradigm, and often seem more exacting and less naïve than the stereotypes we held about them at the beginning of the project. In other words, the variety of attitudes towards ICH – ranging from passionate engagement with its preservation through ironic distance to dogmatic rejection and/or total ignorance – does not correspond to the social binaries in which UNESCO frames the Convention’s application: “top” vs. “bottom”; “experts” vs. “communities”; etc.
- Some of the potential problems raised in our original research design have turned out to be non-issues. For example, the question of the distribution of ICH in space, and specifically across cantonal borders in Switzerland, has been “pragmatically” solved by the FOC, which has required cantons who submitted similar cultural expressions to work together to produce joint dossiers, and has even enrolled some cantons that explicitly declined to heritagize certain practices in the seemingly innocent task of uniting forces for the national list. It remains to be seen, however, whether all of these re-articulations and recombinations will meet with approval; for the time being, not enough media attention has been paid to this process to raise anyone’s cultural hackles, but certain items could cause problems in the future, depending on how the dossiers advance at the international level. In particular, the question of watch-making know-how could become a fascinating bone of contention, as the main industry actors in the cantons of Neuchâtel and Jura explicitly refused to place this element on the cantonal lists, only to find that Geneva and Vaud had taken another decision. As the element stands, it currently involves the seven cantons of the “Jura arc”, but has not been submitted to the relevant “bearers of culture” for approval. Were it to figure on the list proposed to UNESCO (which is somewhat likely given the “natural” inclusion of watch-making in a list supposed to represent Swiss culture internationally), then informed consent would have to be solicited from people who have already refused to play the ICH game. We will be following this case closely, to see how “pragmatics” and “commonsense” play out in this instance.
Collaborateurs et collaboratrices
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