Opening Address
Mounir Bouchenaki
Division of Cultural Heritage, UNESCO

Mr. Chairman, Vice Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Colleagues:

Allow me first of all to tell you how pleased I am to be among you today, representing the Director-General of UNESCO, Mr. Federico Mayor, at the opening of this important conference in Washington. I also wish to pay my respects and appreciation to Mr. Michael Heyman, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, for the kind words that he has just addressed to us all here today. I would also like to express my gratitude to Dr. Richard Kurin, Director, and Dr. Anthony Seeger, Curator, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and their colleagues, for having worked closely with UNESCO in organizing this conference, and for having welcomed it on the premises of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. Department of State, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution Office of International Relations (OIR) for their generous financial contributions to making this gathering possible.
UNESCO has been happy to cooperate with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, a Center whose basic tenets are dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” and more particularly to “promote the understanding and continuity of contemporary grassroots cultures.” These principles correspond to those expressed in the Constitution of UNESCO, signed in London on 16 November 1945 by thirty-seven countries. “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed. That ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war.” One of the purposes and functions of UNESCO is to maintain, increase, and diffuse knowledge through international intellectual cooperation in the fields of education, science, and culture.

Ladies and Gentlemen, UNESCO is very pleased to be able to partake in the thirty-fourth annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an exhibition of living cultural heritage from across the United States and around the world, celebrating the vitality and diversity of traditional and popular cultural expression. This Festival, an event organized to raise consciousness and disseminate knowledge about diverse cultures, is itself an extension of the Smithsonian Institution outdoors, dispersed along the National Mall of the United States, where it embraces the same goal but with a somewhat different approach. In demonstrating culture as dynamic, alive in various settings, this Festival provides a direct opportunity for intercultural dialogue, where tradition-bearers, including storytellers, elders, balladeers, artists, healers, and builders, as well as academics and a broad public, are able to share and exchange their knowledge. Such activity offers an excellent occasion not only to understand, appreciate, and respect different aspects of “other cultures” but also to identify common features among different cultures.

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, as we enter a new millennium, many countries have begun to adopt a broader and more inclusive definition of the word “heritage”; i.e. the heritage of ideas, the scientific heritage, and the genetic heritage are all part of the ancient heritage that we must safeguard. In addition, we must ensure the preservation of the ethical heritage, a heritage in which diversity is embraced in its infinite forms as a means to establishing unity, a oneness that represents our strength and our hope for the future.

UNESCO is most famous for the “World Heritage List,” established on the basis of the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage adopted by the UNESCO General Conference in 1972 and managed by the World Heritage Centre, which I am honored to lead. The primary objective of this action was to provide a legal mechanism that could ensure the safeguarding of tangible heritage for future generations. The term “tangible heritage” was here extended to include cultural monuments, cultural and natural sites, and cultural landscapes. However, despite its great significance, none of the provisions of this Convention apply to the intangible cultural heritage, namely the entire treasure house of popular arts and customs, such as languages, dances, songs, rites, ceremonies, and crafts that have been handed down over centuries. Yet, the intangible, like the physical and natural heritage, is itself vulnerable and, as such, is at risk of being swept away by the global trend towards homogenization and the pressures of a market economy that continually applies commercial standards to aspects of life which cannot be reduced to economic profit and loss. Nonetheless, technological development, including cinema, radio, television, and electronic telecommunications, has provided us with mediums to preserve and diffuse the world’s cultural heritage, a service which has greatly contributed to the security and enhancement of our daily life together.

As Director of the World Heritage Centre and the Division of Cultural Heritage and as an archaeologist myself, I feel that all forms of cultural heritage, including tangible and intangible heritage and natural heritage, must be respected and recognized as being closely affiliated. For instance, intangible heritage provides an understanding of spiritual values, historical signification, and symbolic interpretation to both cultural monuments and cultural and natural sites, a fact that must be recognized and respected in present and future generations.

UNESCO wishes to draw your special attention to the subtitle of the conference: local empowerment and international cooperation. These principles are in conformity with wishes recently expressed by the two governing bodies of UNESCO, namely the General Conference and the Executive Board. Throughout the last few years, these bodies have been underlining the need for the Organization to strengthen activities relating to the reinforcement of indigenous capacity-building. Moreover, for the activities in the field of cultural heritage, both for its preservation and its management, the governing bodies constantly stress that active participation by local communities and their young people in implementing activities should be reinforced. I am happy to note that each one of you present here today has deeply committed yourself to some concrete actions for empowering local communities in the task of preserving and revitalizing intangible cultural heritage in various parts of the world.

I am also happy to see here today a number of young persons, including those from nearby institutions and those who came from abroad, participating in this conference. It is important that young people take active part in reviewing the results of the forthcoming conference since it is they who will ensure the safeguarding and transmission of intangible cultural heritage to future generations. In the words of Wordsworth, “The child is father of the man.” That is to say, it is the young who hold the future in their hands, it is they who will carry humanity through to a new era.

Ladies and gentlemen, at all times and in all places, each and every human being is unique. Each person’s uniqueness, embodied and multiplied in diverse cultures, is the most outstanding characteristic of the human species. This quality forms the basis for the establishment of cultural freedom, a collective freedom in which a group, or individuals, may be free to develop a way of life of its own choice.

In order to achieve such freedom, it would be necessary to promote cultural diversity throughout the world. Promoting diversity would certainly slow down the process of global uniformity, which seems, paradoxically, to lead to global anonymity. As Claude Lévi-Strauss states, if cultural diversity is “behind us, around us and before us,” then we must learn how to let it lead, not to the clash of cultures, but to their fruitful coexistence and to intercultural harmony.

I would like here to talk about a group of people who have recently, and peacefully, attained their political autonomy, a group who have consciously retained three traditional ancestral principles as a means of ensuring their cultural specificity and peaceful cohabitation with other ethnic and cultural groups. I am referring to the people of Nunavut, living in the north of Canada. These principles are “patience,” “sense of sharing,” and “art of adaptation.” Mr. John Amagoalik, President of the Commission for the establishment of Nunavut, recounts the following:

Patience I discovered as a child when I saw my father waiting for hours in an ice hole until the seal came up to take a breath. This patience we needed for negotiation for the establishment of Nunavut. Sense of sharing — This is another foundation of our culture. We will continue to apply this principle in our political responsibilities. Art of adaptation — This principle has been put into practice by our ancestors for 4,000 years. Without adaptation, there is no survival!

Ladies and gentlemen, this conference can make an enormous contribution to the future direction of the safeguarding of the world’s intangible cultural heritage. In so doing, the recommendations of this conference will also affect the future of the world’s tangible and natural heritage, as all forms of cultural heritage are intricately intertwined. As Miguel de Unamuno states, “The ultimate purpose of culture will perhaps be to achieve the spiritual unity of humanity.”