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Is Swedish midsummer in need of protection? Photo: Johnér
Is Swedish midsummer in need of protection? Photo: Johnér

What is cultural heritage and how do we protect it?

Ancient stone buildings are one thing, but how do we protect ‘intangible’ concepts such as food and traditions? Unesco has a plan and now Scandinavia is starting to make its contribution.

Eating herring, drinking snaps and then dancing in a ring during the light summer nights – is that typically Swedish?
Yes, perhaps.
But a Swedish tradition that is equally important as the midsummer celebrations is the much more mundane ‘fika,’ getting together with a friend (or friends) to enjoy a cup of coffee, but not for a lengthy period of time or in such a way that it inconveniences the person extending the invitation.

In both cases, the issue at hand is one of ‘intangible cultural heritage,’ things that cannot be physically touched such as traditions, stories, music, dance, and craft skills. Norwegians would perhaps highlight their custom of ‘gå på tur’ – going on excursions on foot or on skis. In Denmark, everyone knows what ‘hygge’ is – to spontaneously enjoy the good life with the people you love.

Convention to ‘preserve the intangible’

But let’s go back to where it all began. 
In 1972, Unesco, the education, science and culture agency of the United Nations (UN), adopted a convention for the protection of important world cultural heritage. The problem was that there was a built-in injustice right from the get-go: Compared to Africa and Asia, a disproportionately high number of items in Europe were appearing on the protected list. Therefore, the question that had to be asked was, from a broader human perspective, were ancient, inanimate stone buildings really the only things worth protecting?

Of course not. This is why, in 2003, Unesco adopted a convention to ‘preserve the intangible,’ and many developing-world countries were quick to get their traditions included on the official list. But it would take almost 10 years for “Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intagible Cultural Heritage” to be ratified by the Scandinavian countries – and it is only now that work has begun in earnest.

‘Our work has attracted considerable attention as it is regarded as being a little out in left field’

Annika Sjöberg is responsible for coordinating the work of the agency in Sweden. She has been, and continues to be, inundated with suggestions of intangible cultural heritage worthy of protection, submitted by committed citizens and organizations wanting to see their particular traditions included on the list that should be ready sometime in the next couple of years. Only once this work is complete may the process of nominating one or more of these suggestions for inclusion on the official Unesco list begin.

“Of course, many people have suggested midsummer celebrations, as we expected. One tradition that I personally think is particularly exciting is children’s schoolyard games. These include clapping and singing games such as Bro bro breja and So makaroni that have been passed down from generation to generation but not documented particularly well.”

Gå på tur or going on a good excursion in Norway.

Traditions must be allowed to change and evolve

The smörgåsbord and the Swedish tradition of fika have also attracted a number of fervent advocates, as have ålafisket [eel fishing], nyckelharpan [hurdy-gurdy], and fäbodkulturen [Nordic nomadic culture]. Suggestions have also been received pertaining to various maritime traditions: old shipwright skills such as the building of wooden hulled vessels, are in decline and at risk of being lost forever.

“Our work has attracted considerable attention as it is regarded as being a little out in left field,” says Sjöberg. “In addition, it’s also opened people’s eyes to the fact that the things we can’t physically touch indeed have a major bearing on the way in which we live. Even in an urbanized society, there is knowledge we carry with us that we’ve inherited from previous generations – knowledge that’s important to preserve and take care of.”

Sjöberg goes on to explain that the point is not to preserve this cultural heritage in a stony, rigid form, as traditions must be allowed to change and evolve. She also emphasizes that her work should not be interpreted as a nationalistic project, rather as a means of multicultural dissemination. She is supported by her colleague Hildegunn Bjørgen of the Arts Council Norway, which is actively working to bring inclusivity to various minorities in the country.

Smörrebröd, beloved by the Danish.

“What we don’t want is to end up in a situation where we say ‘this is Norwegian, but this isn’t Norwegian’. What happens when the state decides to rubber stamp one piece of cultural heritage, but not another? It’s actually a matter of documenting the knowledge that exists in the various traditions. What is most exciting is the diversity that now exists and the ways in which different cultures interact with each other.”

Bjørgen explains that craft skills and folk dancing already occupy prominent positions in the Nordic consciousness, and several committed interest groups have close working relationships with Unesco. Therefore, it is more important than ever to focus on the traditions of aboriginal people and national minorities, as well as sections of society such as the gay community.

Norway is currently looking at the possibility of drawing up a national overview, ideally pedagogic in nature and available to the general public via a digital archive. 

“Oftentimes, when we start talking in general terms about ‘intangible cultural heritage’, most people simply glaze over. However, if we talk about various traditions in concrete terms that can be seen in the context of real events and people’s everyday lives, the situation is somewhat different.” 

 

Text: Oskar Ekman