Intangible cultural heritage refers to the kind of knowledge, skills, customs and practises that have been passed on from generation to generation and which are alive and practised today. To emphasise the fact that intangible cultural heritage is an essential part of all of our lives here and now, and that it changes with people and circumstances, it is also called living heritage.
The English term “intangible cultural heritage”, (cultural heritage that cannot be touched), illustrates the essence of this concept and helps to understand it. Beliefs, traditions, practises and skills cannot be touched by hand. They are always based on knowledge. Knowledge, in turn, cannot exist without someone, who possesses that knowledge, and that is why intangiable cultural heritage, as a living heritage, can never be separated from people. By using their knowledge, people make intangible cultural heritage visible, audible, detectable by touch, able to be tasted and perceivable. For example, by following celebratory customs: sending greetings cards, setting a party table and decorating your home, preparing food and drink, dressing accordingly or playing music together with your family and friends.
Intangible heritage lives alongside people
Intangible heritage lives alongside people who use this knowledge and these skills on a daily basis, and also pass them on to others. It is without question that we go to the sauna, celebrate birthdays and housewarmings, do communal work and prepare food according to the teachings of our grandmothers. In our vegetable gardens, we follow tried and true methods – whether they be learned from parents, friends, at courses or from manuals. In this way, every day, and among other things, we live alongside our intangible cultural heritage and do not often pay special attention to it.”
Intangible cultural heritage is an essential link, much like social putty, that binds people into a community, both in time and space. On the one hand, this knowledge and the practises, beliefs and values that we share with predecessors create a connection with the past, provide a sense of continuity and the knowledge of where we come from.
On the other hand, we share intangible cultural heritage with our contemporaries, for example, with family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbours. Intangible cultural heritage is in fact essential primarily because it creates a sense of belonging. Much of seemingly everyday knowledge and skills are necessary to cope in the community and society, whether it be to understand other people or gain livelihood.
In addition to being inextricably linked with people, intangible cultural heritage is also often associated with nature. Knowledge of seasons, animals, plants, and more, helps to better understand the world and teaches you to live in harmony with nature. For example, in order to hunt, you need to know and understand how animals live. A true hunter respects and loves nature. For islanders in turn, is is vital to know how to drive on ice roads. In the case of the latter, experience, which has been acquired by observing nature and learning from others, is key.
Intangible cultural heritage is often also related to where we live. Although many cultural phenomena, such as celebrating midsummer or St. John’s Day (jaanipäev), are common throughout Estonia and in other countries, regional distinctions exist and are expressed through intangible cultural heritage. Due to history or the local nature and environment among other things, widespread cultural expressions have often developed distinctive features in various specific locations, as well as local practises that are not known elsewhere.”
In the case of intangible cultural heritage however, whether it is widespread or rare is not a factor. As long as celebrating midsummer is a beloved tradition in Estonia, it is a part of our intangible cultural heritage, and it makes no difference whether we are the only ones in the world who celebrate it, or not.
What we consider to be our intangible cultural heritage and what not, is in many respects subjective. The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage also emphasises that each community itself determines which knowledge, skills, customs and practises make up its spiritual heritage, i.e. are currently characteristic, essential and necessary for it.
Each generation and community adds its own features
Every generation and community gives intangible cultural heritage its own particular features. It may remain constant for a long time or change with time and circumstances. The roots of intangible cultural heritage are in the past, the meaning of living culture for people today, is what is fundamental.”
Knowledge, skills, customs and practises which no longer seem to be practically or emotionally necessary, will inevitably fall into obscurity or take on a new form. In a rapidly changing world, it is important to ensure that knowledge, which is essential for the community remains, and, if necessary, steps must be taken to protect it: to ensure its transfer to the community, especially younger generations.
In addition to what is considered to be extraordinary, it is important to notice the so-called ordinary and to value what we still have alongside what might be disappearing. When speaking of knowledge and skills that we have inherited, collecting birch sap and building a snowman are surely not among the first that come to mind, since they seem too commonplace. Yet these too are examples of intangible cultural heritage.
The UNESCO information booklet “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Estonia” was used in compiling this text. (2012)