Driving to work last week on successive days I heard a couple of stories on the radio. The first was in response to the President of France suggesting the baguette should be heritage listed. Josh Zepps (I was listening to ABC Radio Sydney) asked for people to call in to nominate foods should we heritage list here in Australia; lamingtons and fairy bread were mentioned. On the following day, he ran the story of Alexandra who put an ad on Airtasker offering $500 for someone to give her a pasta recipe that replicated her nonna’s pasta.
I started to think about how we as heritage professionals would describe this. These are examples of Intangible Heritage which is defined in the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage as the means practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities recognise as part of their cultural heritage (there is more to it than that but you can read that for yourself (http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001325/132540e.pdf).
Research has shown that when you ask people what is heritage, the answer is generally the tangible; buildings and places. The Saraton Theatre, The Great Barrier Reef, The Sydney Opera House.
But when you rephrase the question and ask people what is important to them the answer is different. What is important to individuals are experiences and the emotions they evoke. There is no way that a piece of white bread with margarine and hundreds and thousands sprinkled on it is, in and of itself, of heritage significance. However, Fairy Bread was, in my experience anyway, an essential component of children’s celebrations and parties. What it means and the emotions and memories it evokes, well that that is where its importance and significance lay.
Arabic Coffee is listed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity not because it is coffee (although being addicted I would suggest this is enough of a reason) but because it is a symbol of generosity. The importance is not in the coffee. The importance is in the doing. The preparation and sharing, the experience it imparts and the emotions and motivations behind it.
Whether it is Arabic Coffee, Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, Kolo Traditional Dance or burik (a deep-fried piece of pastry origami filled with either potato or egg that I grew up with) it is the individual and shared experience that becomes important.
When Alexandra put the ad on Airtasker she wrote: I can’t articulate the sensation I had with nonna’s pasta sauces but there’s a warmth and cosiness to it that I can’t recreate myself.
It is easy to see from Alexandra’s words that she is not after a bowl of pasta. She is seeking the intangible aspects of what the pasta represents to her, the memories and emotions.
I have been asked too many times; What is heritage? or Is that heritage?
But that just looks at heritage from a narrow perspective; it is just looking at the stuff. Importance and value comes from the doing and the experiencing. If we just frame heritage in terms of buildings and places we forget the human element.
Do you know what a flying buttress is? It is a buttress slanting from a separate column, typically forming an arch with the wall it supports, check out some examples. They allowed the walls of churches to be thinner and less heavy, allowing more and larger glass windows.
Do you know what a flying buttress does? It defies darkness and allows God’s words to be revealed in light. Churches became lighter, the deeds of the Saints and word of the God could be shown on windows for all to see.
Now what is more important the flying buttress as structural support or as a means to enhance people’s connections with God?
This is why the intangible is so important because the intangible brings people to together. It is food and drink and dance and craft and industry. It creates friendship and memories and importance. The intangible builds churches, presses hundreds and thousands into white bread for children’s parties and makes pasta.
So, if you were to ask me what is heritage I would in turn ask you what is important – because the answer to both questions is going to be the same.