Intangible Natural Heritage

By Eric Dorfman

5 February 2009

When I mention ‘intangible natural heritage’ I frequently get a blank look, even from museum professionals. It’s not a phrase, say like ‘fire engine’, that immediately conjures up an image. Yet the topic, along with its sister ‘intangible cultural heritage’, is becoming increasingly important as a part of what museums are trying to achieve.

Since the first drive to collect objects in an attempt to understand the natural world, a drive that ultimately became the 16th and 17th Century  cabinets of curiosities, museums have had the principal purpose of stewarding and organising of the world’s artefacts, and interpreting  the stories of their objects. More recently, they are gaining an additional function: to safeguarding the milieux from which these objects originate, and not merely the physical elements, but the intangibles too – sounds and landscapes, as well as the evolutionary processes that forms them.

Fashion is moving away from the traditional method of presentation: an object in a case presented with tens or thousands of similar objects, divorced from its context and demonstrating more about the nature of collecting than qualities of the object itself. Increasingly the public and funders expect  modern museums to link both cultural and natural artefacts to their original environment, and to help safeguard aspects of natural heritage that might never even enter the building. Traditional cultures of dance and language, bird migration routes, predator-prey interactions, the intermingling sounds of humans and animals on a farm at dawn, are examples of phenomena that can be represented in museums, but do not exist there. They are, however, integral to the value of  object. Just as an oblong piece of metal becomes valuable when it is discovered to the be the sword  carried by Henry V at Agincourt, a bunch of skin and feathers  is of value as the last known Great Auk or Passenger Pigeon.

Thus has arisen the field ‘intangible heritage’, one that is still being explored in all its facets. Intangible heritage was the theme chosen for the International Council of Museums (ICOM) 2004 General Conference in Seoul, underscoring the importance of its role as an central goal for museums. Obliquely comparable to the Church in medieval Europe, museums have (or could have) the ability to bind societies together by connecting people to the stories and language of their cultural and natural history. ICOM highlighted its importance in a post-conference communication:

It is crucial to preserve our intangible heritage in order to perpetuate age-old traditions which may otherwise be lost forever and to place museum artefacts in their relevant context.

The Journal of Intangible Heritage (yes, there is one) is only 3 years old, and yet has some important contributions to the field. It has yet to publish any works on natural heritage; the focus has been on cultural issues. However, as governments pay more attention to preserving what’s left in the world (from, for instance, the ravages of war and climate change) museums will be increasingly called upon to work outside its walls.

The time is ripe for developing the philosophy of intangible natural heritage, and for using it to help shape programmes of research and interpretation.