In February 2018, the Ulu Mosque in Utrecht provided the setting for a two-day conference on urban cultures, superdiversity and intangible cultural heritage. It was organized by Dutch Centre for Intangible Heritage and UNESCO, among others. Set in the heart of the diverse and fast-changing neighbourhood of Lombok, the event offered food for thought on how contemporary cities embrace the kaleidoscope of cultures settled in them. And how diverse cultures can thrive in harmony and mutual respect.
The notion of intangible cultural heritage was central to the discussions. It challenges us to think about heritage in terms of the living expressions of a social group. Intangible cultural heritage also encapsulates the leitmotif of the cultural life of a community through time. Unlike material culture, it relies on and necessitates past, present and future generations to embody and transmit its values. But what happens if a community loses interest in its intangible cultural heritage? Should we care about this? Or what if a younger generation seeks to radically transform a tradition making it more consonant to the here and now? Is it even possible to preserve living heritage, without mummifying it?
There seems to be no straightforward recipe on how to balance the forces of continuity and change that are at the heart of thriving traditions. But one message resonates loud and clear in my mind: living intangible cultural heritage is about openness. Openness to be inspired by and inspire others; to share one’s culture and cherish that of others; to accept changes to our culture that make it more respectful of others and their culture.
The musical intermezzo by the band Shaian provided the perfect illustration of this. Based in the German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, it is composed by local residents, migrants and refugees from numerous countries (from Syria to Indonesia, via Eritrea). Shaian’s only common language is music. In just twenty minutes they took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the world’s music traditions. Yet this musical patchwork made complete sense. It captured the great heights to which urban diversity can aspire when focusing on the commonalities, and not just the differences.