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  • UNESCO on the Ground: Local Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage ed. by Michael Dylan Foster and Lisa Gilman
  • Stefan Groth
UNESCO on the Ground: Local Perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage. Ed. Michael Dylan Foster and Lisa Gilman. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015. Pp. 188, index.)

The culture conventions of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have had significant impact on the ways both tangible and intangible cultural heritage are debated, regulated, and managed. [End Page 228] International institutions play an increasing role in shaping how local practitioners relate to “practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, and skills” (p. 1) and how both the national and global public view the nomination of heritage elements. It is also clear that funding structures change or adapt when “culture” is elevated to “cultural heritage” by one of UNESCO’s committees. As more states ratify the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and more applications are submitted, UNESCO continuously generates new cases of intangible cultural heritage (ICH), which have the potential to transform local heritage practices and realities. In their edited volume UNESCO on the Ground, Michael Dylan Foster and Lisa Gilman aim to shed light on how such local constellations are reconfigured when cultural practices are embedded in heritage discourses. Much like Christoph Brumann and David Berliner, in their edited volume World Heritage on the Ground: Ethnographic Perspectives (Berghahn Books, 2016), Foster and Gilman are primarily interested in the “situation and opinions and agency of the people residing on site” (p. 3) rather than in bureaucratic processes or formal questions of nomination procedures.

Originally published as a special double issue of the Journal of Folklore Research (2015), the volume seeks to highlight conflicts and continuities between local perspectives on ICH as a starting point for comparative analysis. The volume consists of six case studies following a common structure of five parts, starting with the location, a description of the ICH element, its current status with regard to UNESCO, on-the-ground perspectives, and a concluding discussion. For the comparative project of this edited volume, this structure helps to identify the local specificities of the case studies—such as historical developments, the role of existing heritage institutions, and literacy rates—as well as their common aspects, such as the role of institutions, the importance of tourism, and performers’ views of UNESCO.

Leah Lowthorp’s chapter on Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater reveals the diverse perspectives of local actors on the nomination process and its assumed effects on performers’ social and economic status. Lowthorp argues that the nomination process brought about a rise in trans national, national, and regional institutions related to ICH as well as an increased mediatization of the practice; further, the accompanying changes in funding structures are shown to have had an effect on the perception of performers as either artists or professionals.

In her chapter on a Korean shamanic ritual inscribed on UNESCO’s ICH list since 2009, Kyoim Yun outlines how economic factors, while marginalized in official heritage discourse, can play a significant role for nominated practices. Following its nomination, practitioners of the ritual nurtured expectations of monetary and symbolic gains amid media attention and touristic advertisements. At the same time, local people assumed that shamans practicing the ritual were no longer affordable due to their increased prominence, leading to decreased incomes for the shamans.

Lisa Gilman’s work on the Malawi healing ritual Vimbuza, on UNESCO’s Representative ICH list since 2008, shows that ICH practices are sometimes chosen for nomination not because they are viewed as representative or even as “cultural,” but for pragmatic reasons. Despite local debates about the illegality or danger of the ritual, it was chosen because it was already well documented, vibrant, and exotic, and thus thought to have a good chance for success. Gilman describes the nomination process as top-down and as lacking real community involvement or local knowledge about UNESCO.

Michael Dylan Foster discusses a Japanese New Year’s Eve ritual, Toshidon, in which masked figures go from house to house disciplining children. The actors he engages echo well-known fears that the UNESCO nomination, while welcomed for its contribution to regional branding, might freeze the tradition and...


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pp. 228-230
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