Intangble cultural heritage and museums: a survey of the French Ministry of Culture (2018-2019) (in detail)

Isabelle Chave, Deputy Head of the Department of Research and Scientific Policy, Directorate General of Heritage of the Ministry of Culture

In the perspective of the IMP-project 4th international conference (Cité internationale de la Tapisserie à Aubusson), the Directorate General for Heritage (French Ministry of Culture) which is in charge of the 2003 UNESCO convention implementation since 2006, conducted a preliminary survey dedicated to ICH and museums. This survey responds to many questions: what is ICH place in governance tools and in museum programs? How, in concrete terms, are institutions taking ICH into account in mediation actions, pedagogical projects and cultural manifestations? How do visitors react to ICH related projects? Have inspiring projects dedicated to ICH ever been thought of in museums?

Before this survey, the relation between ICH and museums was already noticeable through:

  • participation to the National Inventory (even though it was at a low level)
  • creation of experimental exhibitions (Sortez des clichés !, FEMS in 2014 and Extraordinaire quotidien, Bordeaux Unversity ethnological museum in 2014)
  • tangible representation in the French observatory for ICH network actors on the internet (Marta Severo, 2015-2017)
  • creation of associations for the UNESCO inscribed elements (Tapisserie d’Aubusson, dentelle au point d’Alençon, compagnonnage etc.)
  • reflexion on the relation between collections in museums and society (Quelle actualité pour les musées de société? Les Rencontres de Maison Rouge, 2018).

The online survey, conducted from November 2018 to July 2019 was elaborated with the support of the 'Fédération des écomusées et des musées de société', the Service of the Museums of France and the Department Head of Politics of the Public (Ministry of Culture). It comprises 50 questions of which 10 are unavoidable and it was sent to 400 ethnological museums and so called 'écomusées' in France among which more than a 100 responded. The following review is only based on answers given by the respondents.

  • As a concept, ICH especially includes traditional craftsmanship (85.7%), artisanal practices (76.5%) oral traditions and expressions (73.5%), festive events (66.3%) and, to a minor extent, performing arts (36.7%). Collective remembrance, also surprisingly associated with ICH, comes in second place (85%) followed by oral archives (75.5%), folklore (63.3%), modern music (32.7%) and digital archives (22.5%)…
  • For a large majority, ICH can help strengthen ties between inhabitants of a territory and collections: remembrance of the past, remembrance of handiworks, strengthening of a sense of identity, partaking in the process, be it a cultural project, an exhibition or an ethnological survey. ICH is prone to inclusivity and co construction and it brought the individual back at the heart of patrimonialisation. ICH also gives meaning to collections, it opens up an area for discussion, it demystifies collections to make them more lively, it legitimates the existence of a museum on a territory and it flattens the upwards hierarchy. ICH is seen as a mean to contextualize collections items. Indeed, without ICH, these items can lost their meaning; on the contrary, it is useful to document objects, to valorize gestures or to improve understanding of a context of production.
  • 50% of scientific and cultural projects (French regulatory governance tool for museums) take into account ICH as a guideline or, in most cases, as a limited element. Almost 90% of museums found it relevant to include ICH in their next scientific and cultural project, in order to achieve many goals: opening up museums to inhabitants, showing the survival of many practices, making artefacts more lively (especially for young people: concept of vitality), approaching ICH in a much more global way, delivering a new approach in terms of heritage and museography, raising awareness in terms of cultural diversity and of biodiversity, reducing the distance between artefact and visitor…
  • Obviously, there is a lack of formation dedicated to ICH for museums staff: 80% of them never received a specific training but more than 70% of them would like to. Documentary tools dedicated to ICH elements (17 French elements inscribed on the UNESCO lists, 430 on the National Inventory) such as the National Inventory, the UNESCO files, PCI Lab (online platform), or the Cahiers du CFPCI, are not identified and are still unfamiliar to Museums. There is almost no tie between those resources and museums documentary data bases.
  • However, ICH has been taken into account in 3/4 of museums in many different ways: (collection of testimonies, workshops, artistic creations, guided visits by practitioners, conferences and meetings, exhibitions, artist residencies, demonstrations, tales, theatre plays, mediation programs, digital technologies, participatory projects, immersive visits, dance performances, 2-voice guided visits, urban exploration…). National events (Journées européennes du Patrimoine, Nuit des Musées, Journées européennes des Métiers d’art, Rendez-vous au jardin…) are privileged moments to bring to light ICH practices (demonstrations and workshops presented by practitioners).
  • Inviting practitioners in museums is the main way to valorize ICH as a mediation tool. They are asked to demonstrate their practices and craftsmanship (through workshops, collection of testimonies, training sessions, exhibitions, thematic guided visits etc.). Those practices that are valorized are mainly craftsmanship (salt production, tile manufacturer, fishing, sailing, mariners, workers etc.), festive events (festival of the Dead, carnival, dance etc.) or social practices. Some of them are also oral expressions, culinary practices or sporting practices. Association are the first kind of partners for museums (60,2%). Some museums also specify that these practitioners are mainly volunteers and that these activities are not always clearly defined in their program.
  • In public service departments, when they exist, ICH in not included to the annual program and no workshops (except from la Cité internationale de la Tapisserie à Aubusson) is entirely dedicated to ICH. ICH is present through workshops conducted by a mediator or a practitioner, professional or volunteer, or through field visits, in situ visits, performances, outdoor demonstrations, traveling exhibitions. ICH is included in EAC activities (artistic and cultural education, interdepartmental policy) in a third of museums: educational packages, ‘La classe, l’oeuvre !’ operation. The results highlighted the interest of young people in ICH, mainly because it appeals to sharing, to senses and to other forms of intelligence ; it also allows a reconfiguration of pupils groups etc.).
  • In permanent or temporary exhibitions, intangible practices are valorized mainly by classical scenographic tools (movies, soundtracks, photographs, audio-visual aids and montages, olfactory terminals, sonar showers, headphones etc.). Some of the museums developed immersive tools or visits in addition to classical guided visits.

In addition to the survey, very successful in situ interviews were conducted from January the 8th to February the 1st, with directors and curators of nine museums. These museums were selected by their answers to the survey: musée départemental de Seine-et-Marne à Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin, Cité internationale de la tapisserie à Aubusson, musée de la Chemiserie et de l’Elégance masculine à Argenton-sur-Creuse, port-musée de Douarnenez, écomusée du Marais vendéen au Daviaud, à La Barre-de-Monts, musée international de la Parfumerie à Grasse, musée d'Angoulême et musée du Papier/Le Nil and le musée d’Ossau.

The survey and the interviews gathered structures that were diverse in size, status and institutional linkage: some of them were dedicated to a practice inscribed on the UNESCO lists, some presented extra Europeans collections, some were inherently tied to the territory where they belonged and some were dedicated to a specific practice or a traditional craftsmanship. ICH issues and answers given to them in the survey are all questioning various notions such as inclusivity, respect of the cultural diversity and participation. Communities are still less taken into account and less well-defined whereas they are fundamental to a practice which is part of ICH spectrum.

Results and analysis of the survey are published (French only) on the website of the French Ministry of Culture ( A so called ‘Museofiche’ will be published with the support of the Service of the Museums of France to help professionals in integrating ICH to museum policies. A permanent training program will also be created at the Institut National du Patrimoine.

Seen as a major issue in museums development, ICH surely is a federating tool, according to the respondent museums. It can help contextualizing collections, bringing human activities back at the heart of patrimonialisation and stimulating scenographic creativity. It mainly belongs to the field of heritage interpretation (médiation). ICH is definitely a tool for museums. But a question remains: may museums be tools for ICH safeguarding ?