Living heritage in the Nordic countries: a flashback to the conference

The first “Living heritage in the Nordic countries” conference during the ongoing NORTHERN DIMENSION PARTNERSHIP OF CULTURE: CREATING NEW PRACTICES OF SUSTAINABILITY project took place in Espoo, Finland, from 31.10. - 02.11.2019. A conference gathering more than one hundred professionals from all across the Northern Europe and the Arctic - from Lithuania to Greenland, from Denmark to Sápmi (with participants from NGOs, museums, educational or research facilities to governmental institutions or avid practitioners), who try keeping traditions at good health according to the UNESCO’s Convention “for safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)”. It’s a document adopted in 2003, ratified by 178 states as of today, and defined many activities during the conference.

In collaboration with TAIKE (Arts Promotion Centre Finland) and close collaboration with Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland, and Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, NDPC co-supported the event “focusing on exploring the problematics of sustainable development experienced by communities in the Northern Dimension area from the perspective of the arts based on the four pillars of sustainability” – social, cultural, economical and ecological.

When entering the premises and registering for the conference, every participant received an interesting artefact – the “Wheel chart of sustainability”, developed as a part of the project. Although created as a tool to implement the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of the ICH in Finland, it gave a better, universal idea on how to implement such ideas globally. After all, the eight topics covered on the wheel (ownership, accessibility, interaction, economic equity, role of economics, ecology, nature, continuity) are important to every community and their heritage, both the tangible and intangible.

The conference covered many topics, related to ICH and its temporary and contemporary hurdles, and offered 7 workshops and discussions on sustainable development, education, museums, cooperation, UNESCO nominations, indigenous people and safeguarding practices. It also included real experience of ICH like the sauna or concerts. Despite a large part of the conference being covered by the topic of UNESCO Convention, during the event there were several other topics that emerged and generated multiple fruitful conversations and debates during the conference and right after:

Safeguarding the practices turned out to be a very fundamental topic to be discussed and overlooked during the event. All, presentations, discussions, interviews and also workshops, covering multiple domains, were represented here in order to contemplate on how to watch over the tradition and be sure it grows the right way, but also grows alive, appealing and adapting enough not to lose its seminal purpose and message. The major part of participants represented non-governmental organisations, therefore Aura Seikkula from TAIKE said for a reason that: "NGOs must understand they are very much responsible for living heritage", but every responsibility also comes with finding new different ways in executing such practices;

After a survey was provided during the first day, it turned out that a large part of the participants also represent museums, archives, education domain and heritage centres. Also, as one of the workshops showed, museums are essential to the ICH, and two very good formulations on why museums are so important, came from it. Reetta Karhunkorva from Finnish Forest Museum Lusto said that: “nothing but museums can offer deep understanding into phenomena,” while Kirstine Eiby Moller from Greenland’s National Museum and Archive, when reflecting on their challenges with heritage gathering, admitted: “museum also serves as the secretary of the people”;

Meanwhile, another aspect, related to museums and heritage centres, was covered when talking about the future and digitalisation. The topic turned out very important, when discussing about whether it is possible to capture ICH fully when digitalisation exhibitions, centres, stories, museums, archives, documentation. One aspect was the preservation of the fragile shapes of ICH, the other aspect was looking at the perspective of attracting the younger generation that also seems like a real challenge to almost every community preserving and maintaining the flow of their ICH;

Another hot topic of the conference (that very much covers the contemporary life of any community during the era of migration across the globe) was the topic of displacement and heritage keeping. A good example of the phenomena today (not to say about experiences and memories from Sápmi people and communities in Greenland, who were presented during the event), there was the Egyptian bard Ramy Essam, who performed at the conference, reflecting on his past living in Scandinavia as a political exile. He performed his songs in a manner that represents a modernized Arabic singing, and admitted he was damned at home by his rough singing style and was not accepted. Now his songs are songs of rebels and protesters, famous tunes that restore humanity of Egyptian culture more than ever, thus Ramy proved that, even if the heritage sounds, looks and is used differently than we imagine it should, yet it resonates more than ever to the people of today, still keeping its genuine at its core and thus maintaining the ICH in a contemporary manner;

One more topic to mention was the visitor culture related to tourists, ending with the raising blogger trend and, again, related to the digitalisation of communications. One concern was that all the contemporary means of education, media, ways of experiencing (e.g. short-term and not devoted enough) might cause challenges to safeguarding and also transfering ICH. Meanwhile, as Meg Nomgard from the Museum of Legends said: “it's very much related to ability to raise funding in order to protect many elements of intangible cultures”, and her quote followed a discussion related to whether many culture centres, museums, archives, or professionals individually or in groups should uncover their ICH deep enough to appeal to general audiences, thus generating funding from visitors (but also keeping in mind that many, particularly indigenous ICH takes a lot of time and a different worldview to be truly and responsibly experienced). As in an interview stated one of the most knowledgeable minds on the Convention Eivind Falk, also director of Norwegian Crafts Institute, that: “there are other elements, rituals, contexts and their meanings (in indigenous culture) that could be really hard for many other communities to even understand” and such conclusion is another hurdle that resticts ICH to be approachable and comprehensive to many in short term;

After the conference, TAIKE facilitated the “World Saving Clinic” with the conference participants. “Believing in the power of co-creation, the World Saving Clinic aimed to empower experts in a new, bold future-oriented role” and used the “Intangible Cultural Heritage: Wheel chart of sustainability” mentioned before. “By using artistic methods as tradition-innovation creating tools, clinics are moderated as participatory innovation labs where biggest dreams come true and futures are saved. By stimulating creativity as well as experimenting solutions through a facilitated process, the World Saving Clinic employed a variety of tools to engage participants in envisioning possibilities for global change.”

The conference was organized by the Finnish Heritage Agency in co-operation with the Ministry of Education and Culture, Hanaholmen Cultural Centre, Arts Promotion Centre Finland, the Finnish National Commission for UNESCO, the Royal Norwegian Embassy, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and NDPC.