What is the difference between culture and heritage? It’s a question that has often arisen in my work and which, if it doesn’t have a neat solution, is still a good lens through which to examine some of our more unconscious attitudes.

In February 2012, I was invited to contribute to a conference hosted by the Netherlands Centre for Folk Culture and Intangible Heritage and the Fund for Cultural Participation. The event was held to mark the Netherlands’ ratification of the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. There are now almost 150 parties to the Convention, though not the United Kingdom, which surely counts a mistrust of abstractions in its intangible heritage.

Culture is what we seek out, what attracts us, while heritage is what other people want us to accept, a kind of filial duty.’

The conference gave me an opportunity to reflect on why Europeans make a distinction between heritage and culture and the consequences that follow for cultural policy.

Having listened to the other speeches and had rich discussions with delegates from within and beyond Europe, I came away with new questions, including the basis of the distinction between tangible and intangible heritage. After all, it is the intangible meanings human beings invest in objects that explain why some are designated ‘cultural’ and others not. That feels like something to return to another time.

Download2012 The Shoreline and the Sea

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