From Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) to Social Marginality in the Museum Context: Problems and Perspectives

Elisa Perego
Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Viridiana Tamorri
Universidad de Salamanca

Veronica Tamorri
Department of Archaeology, University of Durham

Raphael Scopacasa
University of Exeter



In 2003, UNESCO drafted the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH hereafter) (UNESCO 2003). In issuing this fundamental document, UNESCO’s hope was to raise awareness on ICH’s crucial role as a mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development as well as to seek cooperation for its protection.

ICH is defined by UNESCO as the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity (UNESCO 2003, Article 2; emphasis added).

In drawing attention to the transmission of ICH from generation to generation, UNESCO implicitly recognizes the development of ICH in the longue durèe, and, therefore, the deep meaningfulness of this concept to archaeology and museum studies. As proven by increasing interest in this issue (e.g. O’Brien et al. 2015), ICH represents a new crucial challenge for archaeology as a discipline. The role played by archaeology in preserving and safeguarding present and past people’s heritage has become especially decisive in recent years, when warfare, globalization and dramatic socio-economic transformation are increasingly endangering the survival of ICH across the globe (e.g. UNESCO 2005), with particular reference to the heritage of the marginalized, the dispossessed, the abused, the poor and the displaced.

In reflecting upon the preservation of today’s marginal people’s heritage, our attention is also drawn to the destiny of the heritage (including ICH) produced by the non-élite and marginal individuals of the distant past, that are often the forgotten protagonists of human history (e.g. Perego and Scopacasa 2016). In this regard, it is crucial to underline that such individuals – including past migrants, the victims of forced displacement in antiquity, the poor, slaves, the sick, the disabled and even children and women (e.g. Atkins and Osborne 2006; Bradley and Cartledge 2011; Moore and Scott 1997) – may have produced “heritage” which is largely different from the most tangible and “precious” artefacts (e.g. weaponry, jewellery and statuary) that are often a major focus of current museum displays.

Marginality and Intangible Cultural Heritage: Aims and Methods

In accordance with the UNESCO Convention’s Article 13 on other measures for safeguarding, therefore, our work seeks to explore ways to foster scientific … studies, as well as research methodologies that may promote the effective safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage (UNESCO 2003) of past and present marginal people.

In particular, the present contribution will propose some methodological and theoretical reflections on the following issues

(a)    How can we effectively apply the concept of ICH to archaeological and museum studies, with a specific reference to Italian archaeology and the Italian museum system?

(b)   How can we work towards an effective representation, in the museum context, of the experiences and viewpoints of past marginal people? What are the main challenges we face in conceiving and creating museum displays accounting for the diversity and nuances of the archaeological record?

(c)    How can we promote a deeper engagement of today’s marginal people with heritage/ culture (including their own ICH), with particular reference to the situation of present-day Italy? If we increasingly move towards the creation of museum spaces focusing on the life histories of past marginal people, may such a shift in perspective and practice be useful in drawing more attention to the ICH of today’s marginal people? Would this approach be an effective way to promote social integration through cultural engagement? Are there any potential dangers and pitfalls in this model of public engagement focusing on marginality?

Fostering International and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Our reflections will build upon ideas and concepts elaborated within the framework of the recently formed international and interdisciplinary research network The End of the Spectrum: Towards an Archaeology of Marginality. Currently hosted by the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, this initiative involves archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, research consultants and cultural heritage experts who share an interest in social exclusion in present and past societies, and intend to develop collaborative research and outreach activities on this topic.

In particular, the network members and authors of the present contribution have recently started a new collaboration on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) and the safeguarding of marginalized people’s endangered cultural heritage. By using wide-ranging and disparate types of evidence (including original photographic materials, cf. for example Fig. 1 and Fig. 2), this research will focus on case studies from Mexico, Italy and Brazil covering the chronological span from the 1910s to the present. The aim is to address issues of resistance, survival and cultural creativity by socially excluded individuals and groups in different cultural contexts. These culturally and numerically delimited groups created both tangible and intangible cultural heritage that has received comparatively less attention than that produced by dominant social segments in the same communities, and will offer crucial instances to address the issues raised in the previous paragraphs. 


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