The Friday Fillip: A Curious Panopticon

What might Sardinian pastoral songs, Chinese oolong tea, and Moore Town Jamaica have in common?

The answer’s something of a cheat, because it’s: the United Nations, and more specifically, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Back in 2003 the Conference of UNESCO approved the text of a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage which came into force in 2006. The aim is to identify and to some extent work to preserve unique aspects of a nation’s or a region’s received culture — intangible heritage, which:

includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, arts, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. [UNESCO]

Currently there are something like 280 items on the list. What makes this right for a Friday fillip is the fact that each item carries with it a textual description, a set or slideshow of still photos, and a video of the practice or event. You’ll see things that, unless you’re a peripatetic whiz, you’re unlikely to witness in the flesh — and, sadly, things that, even were you to have a big bank account and a big bag of free time, you might arrive too late to see.

I’ve found that some, perhaps many, of the videos don’t work when accessed from the list page. But don’t despair. There’s a multimedia archives set of pages dedicated to these videos from the intangible cultural heritage section. In the archives, you access videos via a search function, although you could browse the list of thumbnails to find what you want or might want. But I find it easier to come in via the list page and resort to the multimedia page if needed.

So what about those Sardinian songs, etc.?

Here, to get you started are links to (full screen) videos of the three items mentioned at the outset:

But needless to say, there’s a world of fascination here: the making of kimchi, Portuguese fado, Iranian dramatic storytelling . . . and more.

(You’ll also find about a dozen of these films on iTunes U, if that proves convenient for you.)

I can’t resist adding as a, well, fillip, that Canada is not a party to the convention. Now, it’s not as you might think, that there’s no intangible cultural heritage here worth inscribing on the list and protecting. There’s a ton of worthy candidates here (as Québec and Newfoundland and Labrador have said explicitly by reaching towards the 2003 Convention via provincial measures). The explanation for our absence — and perhaps that of the United States as well — has in part to do with Canada’s disinclination to spend the effort and money necessary to establish and maintain the necessary inventory, clearly a big job in this big, variegated country. That said, though, I should have thought that, if nothing more, an inventory of the First Nations’ ceremonies and rites would be immensely valuable not just to the world but to this nation and well worth the cost.


  1. To what extent, if any, is US resistance to the treaty based on a concern that ratification will make it easier for countries to impose quotas on, say, broadcasting content and movie distribution, to ensure some part of the market for local production? Once it is admitted that intangibles have world-class value, then presumably it matters what intangibles are in everybody’s living room and neighbourhood screen.

    Canada’s non-participation in this picture would show yielding to US pressure, as it frequently does, rather than trying to preserve a more open market around the world for Canadian productions.

    Maybe the two phenomena are unrelated. Who knows?