The 1972 Convention on World Cultural and Natural Heritage identified monuments, sites and landscapes of outstanding, universal value for the whole of humanity by inscribing them in the World Heritage List.
However, this Convention was not applicable to intangible cultural heritage, numerous forms of which are in danger of disappearing, threatened by cultural standardization, armed conflicts, tourism, industrialisation, the rural exodus, migrations and the degradation of the environment.
Since then, oral and intangible heritage has become internationally recognised as a vital factor for the promotion of cultural identity, playing a crucial role in national and international development, in tolerance and harmonious interaction between cultures.
In order to safeguard, transmit and revitalize this extremely precious asset of the human cultural treasury and to maintain the world's cultural diversity, UNESCO therefore created a new international distinction entitled "Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity". Nineteen cultural works were proclaimed masterpieces in May 2001 at the First Proclamation.
ESTABLISHING DIGITAL ARCHIVES
Conservation measures applicable to the physical heritage are not appropriate for the intangible heritage. It is necessary therefore to establish digital archives by recording these cultural expressions on both visual and audio media to facilitate their survival and transmission to future generations.
Furthermore, bringing culture into the digital environment is a pre-requisite for any national and international information policy. Thus, original recordings must be of the highest quality, easily downloaded by most information systems.
UNESCO has therefore started the process of recording and archiving these forms of cultural expressions with the most advanced digital technology in order to preserve the images and sounds of these masterpieces.
ACQUIRING DIGITAL DATA
The initial stage of the project is being carried out in partnership with participating agencies such as NHK, responsible for acquisition of digital data and for the preparation of digital high definition videos which would form an integral part of the digital archives of each masterpiece.
Digital data of the following five proclaimed masterpieces was acquired in the first phase of the project period in cooperation with NHK, Japan.
Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theatre (India)
Opera Kunqu (China)
Opera dei Pupi, Sicilian Puppet Theatre (Italy)
The Garifuna Language, Dance and Music (Belize, supported by Honduras and Nicaragua)
Royal Ancestral Rite and Ritual Music in Jongmyo Shrine (Rep.of Korea)
Based on this NHK/UNESCO high definition video production, the Organisation also produced an enhanced DVD for developing countries.
LONG TERM OBJECTIVE
The long term objective of this project is to develop and apply innovative information and communication technologies for image and signal processing in order to better safeguard, diffuse and promote oral and intangible forms of cultural expressions proclaimed by UNESCO as masterpieces of the heritage of humanity.
The project takes into consideration the sensitive nature of the oral and intangible heritage which makes its preservation complex and delicate. For example, some religious rituals and ceremonies demand privacy or even some ancestral traditions are closed to outsiders of the community. In particular, the performance of some cultural expressions in a different space or time than that which corresponds to the tradition can lose all its significance for the local communities concerned.
In order to ensure the consistency of work, UNESCO created an International Task Force whose members represent different disciplines such as information science, history, anthropology and musicology.
See also: UNESCO Oral Archives initiative