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Ethnologist draws up UNESCO cultural heritage list

Martina Pavlicová was assessing applications from 31 states.

Martina Pavlicová of the Department of European Ethnology.

Martina Pavlicová of the Department of European Ethnology spent all last year assessing applications from 31 states for inclusion on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

She was a member of a six-member committee whose task was to recommend or reject the applications. In the end, 25 of the applicants had reason to celebrate.

To become involved with such a body is no simple matter. Pavlicová succeeded thanks to the fact that she has cooperated with organizations linked with UNESCO for over twenty years.

“I was fortunate enough to be around when the idea of protection of intangible heritage was first mooted," explains Pavlicová, a specialist in folk culture from the Faculty of Arts.

In deciding whether or not to accept an application, members of the committee are governed by a number of rules and conditions. Most importantly, the phenomenon must have the support of the community and the state of its origin, and it must already be protected by the national list.

“This ensures that not just anybody can place an application, so that traditions will live on," says Pavlicová. “Tangible heritage is easier to protect, as mostly it is cared for by the state. Intangible heritage has to be cared for from within, by those who maintain the tradition."

In some cases bids for inclusion on the list are conducted over several years. Rather like hosting the Olympic Games, it is about prestige and the opportunity to develop cultural heritage. From the Czech Republic the list's criteria have in the past been met by the men's folk dance verbuňk, Shrovetide processions with masks from villages of the Hlinecko micro-region, the Ride of Kings from Moravian Slovakia, and (in conjunction with several other states) falconry.

The difficult role of the committee
Last year no Czech phenomenon aspired for inclusion in the elite group, although the committee considered applications from all over the world, spending several months over their deliberations. In spite of the amount of materials submitted by each applicant, Pavlicová says that the committee has a difficult job.

“I realized this again when we were dealing with an application from Africa. Each application should be supported with the signatures of people from the community in question. In this case the applicant put the argument that the local tribes were illiterate, so signatures were difficult to obtain."

She doesn't tell us what the committee's final recommendation was: its members promise not to reveal too much about how its decisions are reached. What is certain is that new additions to the prestigious list in 2013 included the music of Terchová in Slovakia, the tradition of the preparation of Turkish coffee and the Q'eswachaka ritual from Peru.

The latter concerns a tradition that is upheld annually in the first week of June, when people of the ethnic communities of the Cusca region come together to repair a rope suspension bridge, using techniques that originated with the Inca almost six hundred years ago. Each stage of the repair has the character of a ritual, and the bridge itself is a symbol of communication with the past and the natural world as well as between ethnic groups on both sides of the river.

“In my opinion this is a classic example of the kind of intangible heritage we should be protecting," says Pavlicová.

One application that the committee did not approve came from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. And the reasons? These were given in a rationale. Provided that the Austrians address the committee's objections, they may re-submit their application.

Looking back on her several months of work for UNESCO, Pavlicová notes that every ethnologist must apply cultural relativism, i.e. he or she should always bear in mind that no culture should be judged through the eyes of another.

“We can tell ourselves this a hundred times," she says, “but until we encounter it face to face, it remains just a theory."