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  • Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from UNESCO by Valdimar Tr. Hafstein
  • Lisa Gilman
Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from UNESCO. By Valdimar Tr. Hafstein. ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. Pp. vii + 204, prelude, introduction, postlude, conclusion, acknowledgments, works cited, index.)

Valdimar Tr. Hafstein's ambitious goal is "to change how we think about intangible cultural heritage" by asking the provocative question, "If intangible cultural heritage is the solution, what is the problem?" (p. 2). His contribution stands out in the ever-growing scholarship on intangible cultural heritage (ICH) because of his unusual access to the inside story of the power brokering and ideological negotiations that have undergirded international efforts to promote local cultural forms and practices. As a folklorist and ethnographer, Hafstein conducted participant observation fieldwork in UNESCO's headquarters during the negotiations that led to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and then later as a delegate to the General Assembly of States Parties to the Convention and to a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. He subsequently served as a consultant for the Convention's implementation in Sweden and Iceland and later chaired Ice-land's National Commission for UNESCO. With humor and some cynicism, he examines his fieldwork data, archival materials, and published case studies to analyze how individual personalities and states, motivated by serving their own interests, ultimately produced global instruments to be implemented in highly diverse locales across the world.

In chapter 2, "Making Threats," Hafstein utilizes fieldwork and archival materials to trace how the concept of ICH and the Convention came into being. As a folklorist, he recognizes the subjectivity of narratives and explores the multiple variants of the Convention's origin stories. The versions told through UNESCO channels emphasize concerns for the survival of heritage within the context of globalization alongside heroic claims of the successful rescue of ICH at risk of destruction. Hafstein complicates these stories by offering alternatives that portray a far messier reality: competing claims for ownership, the problems of national borders that do not align with cultural ones, economic and political greed, cultural appropriation, and misrepresentation. The chapter ends by rhetorically inquiring: "When is protection not a means of dispossession?" (p. 49).

Three lists serve as the mechanism for state parties to participate in UNESCO's heritage system: The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, and the national inventories of intangible heritage. In chapter 3, "Making Lists," Hafstein details the contentious debates that led to UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. He explains that lists are always selective and that heritage systems are inherently structured on exclusion. They objectify and reify cultural practices as things that can be named and added to lists for the purposes of safeguarding, showcasing, or identity making. Because the listed "things" are tied to peoples, the selectivity extends beyond forms to cultural groups. The process of compiling a list of "things" deserving of international visibility ultimately puts cultural forms and, by extension, groups, in competition with one another; or, as Hafstein puts it, "heritage lists fuse esthetic, ethical, and administrative concerns in a rather unique fashion. They celebrate the virtues of particular populations while fueling a contest among them" (p. 53).

Chapter 4, "Making Communities," begins with an example of heritage safeguarding that [End Page 354] illustrates the Convention's potential. Jemaa el-Fna, a busy marketplace in Morocco, was in danger of being replaced by a new shopping mall. The story goes that the international recognition resulting from its inscription on the ICH representative list convinced the elite population that Jemaa el-Fna was culturally valuable even though they had perceived it to be incongruous with their desire to modernize. Hafstein rightly argues that it is ironic that an international body is required to reclaim the local over the global. Moreover, it is paradoxical that once the market is recognized as the ICH of humanity, its value and the moral imperative to save it expand from those most connected to it to everyone in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-1882
Print ISSN
0021-8715
Pages
pp. 354-356
Launched on MUSE
2020-07-03
Open Access
No
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