Authenticity and Intangible Heritage. A divorcing couple?

Chiara Bortolotto, paper for the Inaugural conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, University of Gothenburg, 5-8 June 2012.

Among the many implications of intangible heritage for re-theorising heritage, the abolition of authenticity as a criterion for heritage identification in the framework of the Unesco ICH Convention stands as a key issue. This paper presents the Unesco argument against this idea and compare it first to the point of view of local experts and secondly to that of heritage stakeholders. Western anthropological theory has discarded the idea of “authentic traditions” since at least three decades. How did Unesco react to this theoretical shift? Did the “invention of tradition” debate influence the experts involved in the safeguarding of ICH in non-western contexts? What does “authenticity” mean for the “bearers” of ICH? Are the notion of heritage and its practice ultimately separable from the idea of authenticity?
In order to present and discuss these issues I will draw from ethnographic observation of the Unesco meeting, from participant observation in capacity building organized by Unesco at the national level, and from a comparative analysis of the nomination files of the elements inscribed in the International lists of ICH of humanity in 2010 and 2011.