reviews // Operational Directives for raising awareness about intangible cultural heritage: the medium is the message

Review by Marta Severo

Among the documents that will be discussed during the imminent General Assembly of the States Parties to the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Paris, 22-24 June 2010), we would like to focus on the ‘additional operational directives for raising awareness about intangible cultural heritage’ (ITH/10/3.GA/CONF.201/5). After the discussion, such draft will be added to the operational directives as a new chapter.
What emerges from a quick reading of these additional directives is the increasing attention paid to the tools for safeguarding and awareness-raising actions (even more than the content of the action). Tools for diffusing information, tools for education, tools for supporting knowledge transmission, tools for respecting and protecting the communities (codes of ethics, intellectual property rights, privacy rights) and so on.
Such focus on tools derives probably from the necessity of finding new unexplored solutions for raising awareness about a peculiar type of heritage as intangible heritage. Some examples are provided by the text: symposiums, workshops, public forums and seminars; exhibitions, festivals, intangible heritage days and contests; case studies and field surveys; non-formal means of transmitting knowledge such as participatory educational methodologies, also in the form of games, home-tutoring and apprenticeships; developing activities such as summer training, open-days, visits, photo and video contests, cultural heritage itineraries, or school trips; and information and communication technologies (see this post for more a discussion of the approach of the additional directives to ICTs).

In order to reflect on the role of tools in the awareness-raising actions, we created a tree cloud of the text of the additional directives. Tree cloud is a text analysis and visualisation software, developed by Philippe Gambette and Jean Véronis, which generate a word cloud where words are grouped on the basis of semantic proximity ( Such visualisation will help us identifing and interpreting the principal content of the operational directives.

Application parameters: 100 words maximum, google cooccurrence distance formula, combination of verbal forms (ex. develop = developing)

The tree shows that the content is articulated around the words “intangible cultural heritage” and “raising awareness” (and that’s pretty obvious). More interestingly, we can identify three semantic groups:
1. Convention: words related to the Convention for Intangible Heritage and its application
2. Communities: words related to the communities that create ICH and their involvement in the application of the Convention
3. Knowledge/Information: words related to the content of ICH and the actions for safeguarding of it.
Around the backbone constituted by these three branches, the tree draws a complex network that links actions, actors involved and tools employed. In the second graph below we try to label the words by distinguishing actors, actions and tools.

The graph clearly highlights a large amount of both actors and tools. As regards actors, the operational directives identify several types of action that involve numerous actors: not only the UNESCO, communities and State Parties, but also youth and schools, individuals and groups, museums and archives, associations and media. As regards tools, they have an amazing their importance in this text. The directives define not only the type of action, the subjects and the objects of the actions, but also the tools that should mediate the action.
Finally, the few items that remain unclassified are generally related to the content, that is to say intangible heritage itself.

Thus, the analysis of the ‘additional operational directives for raising awareness about intangible cultural heritage’ opens interesting reflections about intangible heritage and its position inside the dichotomy tool-content, which we could translate as the more popular dichotomy medium-message. Shall we cite, once again, Marshall McLuhan famous aphorism “the medium is the message”? We have noticed that the instructions about how to safeguard intangible heritage place more emphasis on the medium than on the message. The tools employed for raising awareness may affect the actions as well as the content of the actions, that is to say how intangible heritage is transmitted, promoted and safeguarded. The reflection about the preservation and the awareness-raising of ICH calls for a careful reflection on tools.