Safeguarding the Past for the Future

What do you think of when you hear the term Intangible cultural heritage? Traditions, roots, community, customs, identity…? Intangible cultural heritage or ‘living heritage’ in fact includes skills and traditional practices that connect communities, encourage local pride and are an essential source of contemporary creativity. Craft skills are a very important part of ICH. Often these practices are not exploitative, have economic implications and makers also tend to consider their impact on the world after they are gone. The UNESCO Convention of 2003 defined intangible cultural heritage as a ‘representation… expression… or skill considered to be part of a place’s cultural heritage’, a term which even amongst experts still requires greater explanation and has been expanded beyond looking at the past to ‘the shifting of social boundaries of inclusion and exclusion’ (Schmitt 2008). According to the 2003 UNESCO Convention, to practice one’s culture is seen as a human right and requires governmental recognition. Separating the tangible from the intangible remains a deeply complex field. 


 Traditional craftsmanship falls within the UNESCO definition of intangible cultural heritage. Under the Convention, member nations are required to develop ICH inventories, to document, research and make evaluations as well as educate in order to safeguard the traditional heritage of world cultures. To create a list comparable to the World Heritage List, scholars and public servants are required to provide a sound assessment of intangible cultural heritage, to develop action plans for cultural communities and to look deeper at cultural context. Dissemination of research findings takes place through festivals, exhibitions, books or videos but a lack of essential human resources can be problematic.


Researchers for the Heritage Craft Association, an independent charity in the UK, formed by a group of crafts people to advocate for traditional heritage crafts, identified 244 traditional heritage crafts to be at greatest risk of disappearing from the shores of the United Kingdom. In May 2021, HCA compiled an updated Red List of Endangered Heritage Crafts featuring 134 crafts of which 4 are now extinct, 56 critically endangered and a further 74 are still endangered. In the shadows of the pandemic, society has had to adapt and as cultures have changed and evolved, craftspeople are amongst the many whose livelihoods have been seriously damaged over the past 18 months. To encourage cultural vitality, Heritage Crafts Association’s Endangered Crafts Fund, originally set up within the UK in 2019, hopes that the most at-risk heritage crafts are safeguarded and given the support they need to thrive. Safeguarding is defined as ‘ensuring the viability of intangible cultural heritage’ and is a welcome addition to the toolkit of resources for accomplishing such valuable cultural work.  Although the compilation of endangered lists may have value they cannot save the practices, or sustain them, without aid. The HCA Endangered Crafts Fund is used to support makers and trainees who wish to develop or share their skills in the crafts that have been identified as being most at risk according to HCA Operations Director, Daniel Carpenter.

The 2021 Heritage Crafts Endangered List is now available here