Cultural Heritage: a legal exploration. By Charlotte Waelde

We claim in our project that dance made and performed by dancers with disabilities is almost entirely absent from our cultural heritage and we ask why this should be. To answer that question we need first to know what we mean by the term ‘cultural heritage’.

The international legal framework that is relevant to cultural heritage is deeply rooted in the system of human rights. Development of this framework gained impetus after WWII not only in response to the atrocities perpetrated on individuals but also, and relevant for our purposes, to the tendency of the conqueror to pillage cultural artefacts from the conquered. Notions of cultural diversity, integrity and identity form the foundations of the treaties and conventions administered by the United Nations Education, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESO), the UN organisation responsible for safeguarding our cultural heritage.

The UNESCO instruments, which cover heritable, moveable, tangible and intangible property, do not contain a single legal definition of ‘cultural heritage’ but instead describe the subject matter of protection. So, for instance, the 1954 Convention dealing with the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict refers to ‘cultural property’ and to both movable and immovable property ‘of great importance’ such as monuments and works of art. The 1972 Convention on the protection of world cultural and natural heritage refers to cultural heritage rather than cultural property which it defines as certain monuments, groups of buildings and sites, while natural heritage is natural features and sites and geological and physiographical – all of which must be considered to be of outstanding universal value.

By contrast to these efforts to protect largely tangible culture, the two main UNESCO Conventions negotiated in the 2000s deal with intangible cultural heritage. The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage defines intangible cultural heritage 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.’ The Convention goes on to state that this intangible cultural heritage is ‘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.’ Key points arising from this definition are that heritage is transmitted from generation to generation thus situating heritage for these purposes as something more than transitory or created for the moment; the recognition that cultural heritage is recreated – so not static or fixed; the idea of cultural heritage being important for identity; and the human rights language in referring to cultural diversity and human creativity. This has clear relevance for dance as it encompasses inter alia the performing arts. However, the criteria that it be passed from generation to generation and constantly recreated in response to the environment means that it is not apt to cover the contemporary dances under consideration in our project.

The Convention for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions 2005 refers not to cultural heritage but to the ‘cultural heritage of humanity’ which it seeks to protect through recognising cultural diversity ‘expressed, augmented and transmitted through the variety of cultural expressions, but also through diverse modes of artistic creation, production, dissemination, distribution and enjoyment, whatever the means and technologies used.’ As with the 2003 Convention, there is strong use of human rights language in reference to cultural values, and stress is laid on the importance of cultural identities. By contrast with the 2003 Convention, the 2005 Convention protects current artistic creativity and values, partly encompassed within definitions of cultural expressions, cultural content and cultural activities. This, then, is the Convention that has the most relevance for dance made and performed by dancers with disabilities.

Drawing common components from the definitions of cultural heritage it has been suggested that ‘Cultural heritage is some form of inheritance (moveable, immoveable, tangible or intangible) that a community or people considers worth safekeeping and handing down to future generations. It is linked with (group) identity and is both a symbol of the cultural identity of a self-identified group (a nation or people) and an essential element in the construction of that group’s identity.’

Two lines of enquiry arise for our project: the first is that it is an inheritance ‘that a community or people considers worth safekeeping..’, the second is that it is ‘a symbol of the cultural identity of a self-identified group’. Who is this community or people who might consider the work worth safekeeping? Traditionally this might have been the cultural organisation charged with preserving our heritage – the museum, library or archive – a community that one suspects may not have been au fait with dance made and performed by people with disabilities given its absence from their records. But what now with digital technologies and decentralisation: who decides what becomes a part of our cultural heritage? Take the example of Girl Jonah or of the archiving of the works produced by the dancers at Candoco. Are they a part of our cultural heritage? Or are they, in the terminology of the 2005 Convention, part of the cultural heritage of humanity? And if the community or people who make the decisions is broader than this, then do they know about this artform such that they can make informed choices about its safekeeping?

And in relation to the second line of enquiry – that cultural heritage is a ‘symbol of the cultural identity of a self-identified group’ - is there ‘a’ cultural identity for dancers and choreographers who have disabilities? Or are there multiple identities within this sector? If identity is forged though the participants’ vision for their art, then it would seem that there could be a number of different identities: those who seek to reinstate the classical model of dance through the disabled body; those who celebrate disability and what the disabled body can do; those who make dance which just happens to be about disability; and those who make dance which has nothing to do with disability. Each of these could be said to be a cultural identity. Is this fragmentation a problem for visibility within the sector that makes choices about what should be kept for future generations? Or is it better considered as part of the rich tapestry within which this dance tradition is situated?

These are some of the questions that are currently occupying as we enter the second year of our project. In part to address these issues, we will shortly submit an application for funding for a project to see if we can build audiences for dance made and performed by disabled dancers using crowdsourcing techniques. In so doing, can we help to build the community that will consider this artform worth safekeeping?
comments powered by Disqus