Controversial Intangible Cultural Heritage

How to deal with the public discussions on specific elements of intangible cultural heritage?

In this line of research, research has been conducted into intangible cultural heritage that is confronted with discussion in society. How do you deal with social discussions about intangible cultural heritage?

What challenges have been addressed in this line of research?

The important questions were: Which social discussions about intangible cultural heritage play a role? How do you deal with this as a heritage community?

First of all, we identified three areas in which the debate often emerged. These are 1. Questions about intangible heritage with fire (bonfires, fireworks, carbide shooting) 2. Sinterklaas celebrations and 3. Intangible Cultural Heritage with animals (such as falconry, traditions with horses and the like). These three domains each have their own challenges, it turned out. Many people think fires are beautiful and the builders work on them for months. But what about safety and the burden on the environment due to the emission of particulate matter? Sinterklaas, a great party for many - but, as it turns out in the Zwarte Piet debate, not for everyone. And then all those horses at the horse market, are they well taken care of? Yes, says the farmer, no, says the activist. These are difficult decisions. How do togetherness and fun relate to a certain degree of nuisance?

Controversieel logo.jpg

It soon became clear that heritage communities perceived the label 'Controversial' as stigmatizing. That is why we now speak of 'Heritage in Motion' (Erfgoed in beweging). Intangible Cultural Heritage is alive and is always on the move, but these movements are striking in a number of areas - in interaction with shifting norms and values in the wider society. The focus of this line is on the abrasive moments between heritage practice and critical voices from society (and sometimes from the own group or community).

What activities has the Knowledge Center undertaken?

The main voices in this line of research are those of the practitioners. How do they view the shifting social norms, laws and values and the resulting abrasive discussion about their heritage? How does this affect their practice and experience? We spoke with different heritage communities, often on location (the riding school, the association building, the own town, 'home') and where possible were present at, for example, the horse market and other events. Thus, through this participatory research, we gained a better insight into what was going on, how people wanted to deal with it, and we were able to discuss possible suggestions. We also heard 'votes against'; critics of some form of intangible cultural heritage. And of course we were talking to colleagues in the various fields.

What insights did this yield?
  • It became clear that, due to shifts in social norms and values, new requirements are being imposed on the implementation of the familiar intangible cultural heritage. This presents the practitioners with the challenge of responding (sometimes in the short term) to this new situation. Practitioners, heritage communities and other stakeholders experience the forms of intangible cultural heritage that are central here - the bonfires, the Sinterklaas celebration, the interaction with their animals - as strongly linked to their own identity as a person and as a community. Legal restrictions and criticism hit hard.
  • Despite this connectedness, many groups and individuals display flexibility and creativity when it comes to 'rethinking' the shape of their heritage. This goes hand in hand with a reflection on the core values of the intangible heritage: as long as they remain intact. Such a core value often refers to social cohesion; 'if only building / celebrating together can continue'. In this way, changes are made to keep their own heritage vital and alive, to safeguard it for the future.
  • Good information provision and communication with the authorities, which are important for the granting of necessary permits, is of great importance to the heritage communities.
  • Intangible cultural heritage around fire, Santa Claus and animals all have their own dynamics, which require specific guidance. Legislation and inspiring examples are important for 'Vuren', around the Sinterklaas celebrations (lack of) insight into each other's emotions and intentions, and the realization that nobody owns 'the' Sinterklaas party and changes have always taken place. The general public knows little about traditions involving animals. They need a safe platform to tell about their animal love and passion.
  • When a certain form of intangible cultural heritage no longer connects with changing feelings and insights in society, new variations arise, which are sometimes the work of one person.
  • National celebrations, such as the firing of consumer fireworks or 'the' national Sinterklaas celebration, are difficult to safeguard and / or represent by one group that sets itself up as guardian of this heritage.
  • Entering into an open dialogue, rather than a heated debate, can be difficult for both advocates and opponents of a particular form of intangible cultural heritage.
  • By empathizing with the points of view of someone who criticizes their own heritage, appealing stories, testimonials and good information can help the other to empathize with the opposite point of view. This is mutual. That is why, with all products of this research line, attention is paid to showing different perspectives.
Products and tools

We produced a number of products, such as brochures and interactive 'tools' which, we hope, inspire and provide insight. They are primarily intended for practitioners and for the wider heritage communities, but also for municipalities and other stakeholders, including the critics. By voicing different voices and showing different perspectives (multi-perspectivity), we hope to inspire a better understanding of our own core values and those of others. And to show how important intangible heritage is for people, how much knowledge it contains, and to contribute to dialogue and mutual understanding. The tools developed for this are:

  • Webinar about regulations on intangible heritage with fire. In collaboration with Willem Westerman from bureau De Regelaar (on July 9, 2020). See link on our website.
  • Elective Compass Intangible Heritage in Motion. To allow reflection on our own intangible heritage to be playful and inspiring, we developed a handy turntable with questions, following the example of the Finnish Heritage Agency. This compass functions as a kind of 'game leader', who asks questions about your own heritage, which you can then discuss together.
  • Brochure Heritage In Motion. Intangible Heritage around Fire. Various heritage communities known to the Knowledge Center have their say in this. They talk about their passions and the challenges they have encountered in recent years. And about inspiring examples and solutions. Laws and regulations in the field of safety and the environment are discussed.
  • Brochure Heritage In Motion. Sinterklaas celebrations. In it we pay attention to the shifts and the surprising variety of the national and local celebrations. It is clear that Sinterklaas celebrations always change shape and are adapted to the spirit of the times. With attention to the UNESCO guidelines in the field of mutual respect, racism and freedom of expression.
  • Exhibition 'Animal, Man & Tradition. Swimming Dogs, Singing Twatwas and Showing Off Horses'. The Knowledge Center organizes an interactive exhibition on intangible heritage with animals, in co-creation with various heritage communities and in collaboration with the Natural History Museum Rotterdam. Heritage communities with animals - such as the Cow Market, falconry, Surinamese songbird association and trotting races - are given a stage here. Objects and texts have been established in co-creation with the heritage communities. In a specially designed 'Dialogue Table', visitors play a game in which various questions are raised about our interaction with animals. Opening: January 2021
  • Publication 'Animal, Man & Tradition. The exhibition is accompanied by a publication. It deals in more detail with the different traditions that come with the exhibition. Publication and exhibition are realized in collaboration with the Center for Sustainable Animal Stewardship and Center for Agricultural History in Leuven.
  • Especially about 'Collaboration with the Media', a chapter has been included in the brochure 'Keep your intangible heritage alive'. Tips and ideas for successful collaboration: with whom and how? ' (Knowledge center publication 2020)

Contact person: Jet Bakels,

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