16th General Assembly and International Scientific Symposium
Quebec, Canada, September 29 – October 4, 2008
Although heritage has long been associated with the built environment and material culture (sites, buildings and artifacts), in recent years there has been a growing interest in intangible heritage (practices, representations, expressions, beliefs, rituals, festivals, traditional knowledge and skills, song, music, oral traditions and dance) in all parts of the world. In response to this concern, in 2003 UNESCO adopted and then ratified only three years later the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage designed specifically to protect and promote intangible heritage.
In 2003, the theme of the ICOMOS 14th General Assembly and Scientific Symposium in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe similarly focused on preserving intangible values in monuments and sites. The published papers of the conference led to interesting discussions on the concepts, perceptions and management of intangible cultural heritage (ICOMOS 2003). In the ensuing Kimberley Declaration, ICOMOS committed to protecting and preserving the intangible elements of heritage and the communities that maintain them at all sites recognized by the 1972 World Heritage Convention. It also set up an International Scientific Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICICH), which recently drafted the Teemaneng Declaration establishing standards for ethical practice in the identification, conservation, management and celebration of the intangible cultural heritage of cultural spaces. The Xi’an Declaration which was adopted by the ICOMOS General Assembly in 2005 also emphasizes the importance of the intangible context and content in the recognition and preservation of world heritage sites.
On the occasion of this Symposium, we need to further explore and analyze intangible cultural heritage and its relationship with tangible heritage in order to develop new concepts, identify new potential threats and elaborate sound practices in the conservation and transmission of the spirit of place. For the purposes of the conference, we have defined the spirit of place as the tangible and intangible elements that give meaning, value and emotion to place.
Summary of theme and sub-themes
Wherein lies the spirit of place? In order to answer this question, we suggest examining the relationship between spirit and place, between the tangible and the intangible.
It is often assumed that the spirit of place emanates from one or the other, as stemming from either the physical object or from the specific uses it serves. Some believe that it is the product of the genius of its creator place - the creator being an individual, a group, a community, an ancestor or even a supernatural being -, who leaves a permanent mark on the place, while others think instead that it originates from the place itself, which instils meaning in both its creator and its users. Aside from arbitrarily separating spirit from place, these approaches tend to essentialize spirit of place, to present it as an essence, as something singular, permanent and static.
Rather than dissociating “spirit” from “place,” the tangible from the intangible, or considering them as being opposed to one another, we invite participants to explore the many ways in which the two interact and mutually complement one another. Spirit, as the intangible genius of the creator, constructs a sense of place and gives it meaning whereas the place itself, that is to say the tangible, nourishes the spirit of its creator and helps define the creation. We wish to broaden the discussion to include not only the creator but also the actual users of place, and define place as being a combination of both tangible elements (the features of the site, the buildings, the material objects, etc.) and intangible elements (oral traditions, beliefs, rituals, festivals, etc.). When considered as a relational concept, the spirit of place takes on a plural and dynamic character, capable of possessing multiple meanings, of changing over time and of belonging to different groups. This more dynamic perception of the spirit of place is also better adapted to today’s world, to the present-day global village, which is characterized by major transnational population movements, increased intercultural contacts and the emergence of pluralistic societies.To facilitate thought and discussion, the theme has been divided into four sub-themes:
The first sub-theme addresses the theoretical issues and the new concepts surrounding the notion of the spirit of place and the relationships that exist between spirit and place, between the tangible and the intangible. We will examine the relation between the site itself in its physical context, the creator and the people who use it as its users can sometimes give it a very different meaning from that originally intended. It appears important to also take into consideration aspects relating to memory and examine the crucial role memory plays in the social construction of the spirit of place.
The second sub-theme focuses on identifying and analyzing the tangible and intangible threats to which the spirit of place might be exposed. The deterioration of the environment, climate change, the “touristification” of historical sites, the “folklorization” of practices and rituals, transnational migrations, new architectural icons and ethnic and religious conflicts are but some of the potential threats to the spirit of place that exist today and can sometimes lead to the abandonment, destruction and ultimately the loss of world heritage sites.
The third sub-theme examines the practices, methods, means and tools that could be developed to safeguard and protect the spirit of place. In most countries around the world, policies and good practices have been established in order to safeguard tangible cultural heritage. However, although great efforts are now being made to preserve intangible cultural heritage and establish appropriate conservation practices, there is still much work to be done in finding better ways of protecting the intangible elements of place.
Transmission is an essential condition for preserving spirit of place. It is through this process that heritage is passed on and thus survives. If spirit of place is not transmitted it can be forgotten, abandoned and finally disappear. Ancient sites are often repossessed and transformed: new civilizations, rival groups and explorers have successively re-appropriated the same places and left in their wake their spirit, often through intangible practices. This reality is at the heart of the debate on spirit of place, a debate that is often political and can jeopardize the quality of transmission when spirits that should be reconciled are in reality in opposition and clash!
I hope you will find these papers interesting.
Laurier Turgeon, Ph.D.
Holder, Canada Research Chair on Cultural Heritage
Director, The Cultural Heritage Institute, Université Laval
Scientific Committee Coordinator
Québec City, Canada