- The Routledge Companion to Intangible Cultural Heritage ed. by Michelle L. Stefano and Peter Davis
I have always loved hats. As I sat down to write this review, I happened to receive an ad in my inbox from a hat company that linked to a blog about Panama hats. There, I was told that what makes a Panama hat "becoming" is not just "its highly intricate weaving pattern" but also "the cultural heritage that it carries—a weaving tradition that has been passed down for centuries in the remote hamlets of Ecuador" (https://blog.ultrafino.com/hats/2018/06/panama-hat-care/). I was struck by this characterization because even as it romanticizes a commodity in order to sell it, it does so by neatly articulating aesthetic value in terms of both tangible and intangible qualities, by invoking tradition, and by emphasizing the importance of community and place. Most strikingly, it also casually employs the phrase "cultural heritage." This drove home to me the timeliness and significance of the volume under review—which touches upon all these concepts and ultimately demonstrates that cultural heritage is not just an abstract scholarly term. The Routledge Companion to Intangible Cultural Heritage provides a snapshot—or rather, a whole picture album—of the evolution of a profoundly important cultural policy and paradigm, one that has not only already affected hundreds of communities in dozens of countries but is also reshaping the ways that we conceptualize culture, heritage, and, of course, those things (intangible and tangible) that we call "folklore."
The editors have assembled here a massive and varied set of essays—38 individual chapters written by 54 authors, including anthropologists, folklorists, legal scholars, museum professionals, ethnomusicologists, and community members. Some of the contributors—such as Richard Kurin, Janet Blake, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett—have been immersed in Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)-related discourse for decades, while others have joined the discussion much more recently. The volume editors explain that "one of our main aims was to bring together as many diverse perspectives as possible" (p. 2), and they certainly do: some chapters are case studies, some theoretical explorations, some mostly descriptive, and some presented in the form of conversations with cultural workers in various parts of the world. Indeed, the global coverage of the volume is impressive, with voices from the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa. The editors deserve praise for bringing such a wide range of contributions together and for valiantly striving to impose structure on this diversity by dividing the work into six sections. Some of these sections feel clear and natural in their focus, such as one that concerns museums and archives and another that explores the relationship between ICH and place. Other sections, such as "Intangible Cultural Heritage Up Close," seem more amorphous and open ended.
I make this point not as a criticism, but rather to highlight the question of how one is meant to approach this book, part of an expanding series of "Routledge Companion" volumes. To be sure, these are richly detailed essays, and there is a little something for everybody here. Several chapters, for example, address the bureaucratic and legal ramifications of UNESCO's 2003 Convention; others focus on specific geographical areas, such as China, Norway, Turkey, the US–Mexico border region, or the Lusophone countries; while still others discuss ecomuseums or the interplay of the tangible and intangible in museums and archives. [End Page 329] I can easily imagine individual essays, or perhaps several selected chapters together, being used for teaching. But at the same time, the book as a whole is not a simple introduction to ICH or a comprehensive handbook or "state of the field" snapshot. As a reader, it is difficult to know how to approach the volume; perhaps as a "companion" to ICH, it is something to dip into selectively, to look for case studies to reference or to gain insight into theoretical concerns.
As with any volume of this breadth, the quality of individual contributions varies, but for the...