Have you ever wondered if time travel is possible?
Time travel exists, not in the way you would have imagined it. Our Heritage is a portal into our past and transports us to an era bygone. It encompasses traditions, monuments, physical objects and the cultural fabric inherited by people across generations.
We always attribute heritage to the preservation and restoration of tangible objects that are ancient. But it is so much more than that. Languages, rituals, songs and stories are also a part of heritage. Our surviving heritage is not only a glimpse into our past, but it is also the thread that ties our society together. This makes it vital that people are aware and feel responsible for protecting and preserving their heritage.
Architecture Historian Simon Thurley in his paper in 2005 talked about the ‘Heritage Cycle’. He created a diagram that explains how we can protect and propagate heritage to ensure that it continues to be a part of our future.
When people understand heritage, they value it. By associating value to it, people feel responsible to care for their heritage. When they care for it, they can enjoy it better. When people enjoy their heritage, they want to understand it better; and the cycle continues. This cycle is vital for the survival of our cultural heritage.
We can classify heritage into two categories – Biophysical & Socio-cultural. Socio-cultural heritage is further classified as tangible and intangible. Biophysical heritage comprises our eco-systems and its elements such as the flora, fauna, minerals, landforms and water bodies.
‘Tangible Cultural Heritage’ refers to physical artefacts produced, maintained and inherited by the future generations in society. It includes monuments, buildings, artistic creations and other physical or products that have a cultural value attached to it.
Intangible Heritage is the cultural inheritance that we pass on from one generation to another. It includes but is not limited to practices, crafts, traditions, languages, rituals, recipes, skills and all other living cultural heritage that people inherit through the ages.
Intangible Cultural heritage is passed down through word of mouth and is thus vulnerable to extinction. Many forms of intangible cultural heritage are at risk because of globalization and cultural homogenization. The lack of public support and governmental schemes also contributes to the heritage dying out.
Let’s consider the example of ‘Chitrakathi’. Chitrakathi is an art form from the state of Maharashtra in India. While many of us have seen these paintings in museums, only a handful know that this form of painting is accompanied by a live performance of storytelling and music. Chitra means drawing and Kathi means story. While the tangible aspect (the painting) has stood the test of time, the art of storytelling is slowly dying and is only practiced by a few members of the ‘Thakar’ community in Maharashtra. The craft or the art does not help the community sustain a livelihood, and thus cannot devote time to their heritage.
Another form of art that is struggling to survive is the Rogan craft. This art form is over 300 years old. Only six people from the Khatri community in all India know the techniques and the cultural significance of this painting style. Without proper intervention, we could lose this craft soon.
If we as a community do not care about intangible aspects of our cultural heritage, it risks becoming lost forever. We must preserve it and pass our heritage to future generations to keep it alive. Initiatives for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage include identifying and documenting heritage, conducting field research, preservation, promotion, and transmission of knowledge through formal and informal education.
THE ROLE OF MUSEUMS IN PROTECTING INTANGIBLE CULTURAL HERITAGE
We have always associated museums with preserving heritage by gathering tangible artefacts. When we visit a museum, we see artefacts, paintings, crafts in displays, labeled with the name and the year stating how old they are. This, however, cannot convey the cultural significance and the nuances of artefacts that are curated.
Most of these art forms are practiced by family guilds, and hence the techniques traverse the course of history only through word of mouth. With the decline in the number of people who have the complete knowledge of a particular craft, it is of utmost importance that we document the process for future generations to come. While documentation is an integral part of preserving intangible heritage, public participation is more important. Without public involvement, it is impossible to propagate heritage.
Having said this, museums are evolving. In the research paper ‘A blurring of the boundaries’ by author Elaine Heumann Gurian, she states that the museum’s relationship to its collections is bound to change. She also states that the museums will rely on more forms of expression for interpretation of what they display. Expressions such as stories, songs and speech will be utilized to convey the depth and context.
Thus, we can only safeguard our Intangible cultural heritage if there is a complete synergy among the public and the institutions tasked with its protection.