A quarterly specialized journal
The Message Of Folklore from Bahrain To The World

Standardised features of intangible cultural heritage

Issue 38
Standardised features of intangible cultural heritage

By Dr. Tarik Al Maliki


Standardisation is an institutional activity carried out by specialised organisations that are recognised internationally, such as ISO, regionally, such as the European Union, or nationally, such as the Moroccan Standards Institute.

Standardisation is an attempt to achieve common understanding and consensus in the intellectual, scientific, technical or economic fields through the formulation of standard specifications including definitions, conditions, certain characteristics, measurements, standard methods and processes, or means to achieve an optimal degree of organisation in a given area. Standardisation is an essential tool for communication between producers and consumers, and one of the manifestations of globalisation.

The interests of different societies have recently become intertwined. This has made it necessary to find means of understanding and forms of consensus, and to translate them into international standards agreed upon by companies and governmental and non-governmental organisations. The waves of networking and the emergence of new technologies led to a need for unified rules to allow the exchange of knowledge and global standardisation processes.

One may ask to what extent a field such as intangible cultural heritage can be subject to standardisation? This is still a controversial topic. The question is how standardisation, which controls industrial goods and products, can be applied to the field of intangible cultural heritage. Is the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage not a form of standardisation that imposes some control over heritage practices so that they conform to international conventions?

Perhaps the most important thing to address as we discuss standardisation is that the more intellectual the work, the greater the need for standardisation. This principle applies to folk heritage and its various branches. It can be explained in two ways:

Heritage documentation is a technical process carried out by government organisations and specialised individuals. This process requires a well-organised plan for the collection of materials, prior agreement as to what should be documented, and consensus on the methods of collection. Standardisation would be very helpful in the heritage documentation process.

Due to local dialects and the diversity of geographic locations in the Arab world, the terms for heritage elements differ from one region to another. This means that heritage researchers are faced with the impossible task of learning different dialects in order to comprehend the different names and terms. Specialists should agree on common specifications, an agreement that will unify the methods used to retrieve the required elements with accuracy. Two main observations can be made:

  • The standards can be classified into three categories: A traditional category associated with libraries and archives, (examples include the Egyptian Folklore Thesaurus, and the Moroccan and Jordanian Folklore Thesauruses); a modern category that applies advanced technologies, especially the semantics of the Web, (the American Folklore Society Ethnographic Thesaurus, the Spanish cultural thesaurus, and the Conceptual Reference Model). While the two former types have focused on an approach to documentation that is based on ‘document conservation’, the third category, (John de Birgi’s network of cultural practices), is centred on qualitative attention to the living side of intangible folk heritage; it focuses on ‘conservation-action’.
  • Arabic thesauruses should be updated, and people who are interested in heritage should combine their efforts and develop standardised specifications approved by the Arab League. The current thesauruses need to be updated in terms of content and technology, because standards for thesauruses and anthologies have changed dramatically with the advent of the semantics of the Web.

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