The understanding of cultural heritage has significantly expanded in the last decades, and efforts have been made to create an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) term. This type of heritage refers to knowledge, skills, customs and practices transferred from generation to generation (or from teacher to pupil) and is in use today. To emphasise that intangible cultural heritage is an important part of our lives right now and that it varies according to people and circumstances, it is also called a living inheritance.
Skills, experiences, and knowledge cannot be physically grasped or touched, which is why they are referred to as intangible. On the other hand, we cannot separate intangible heritage, as a living heritage, from people's lives. When working in the garden, preparing food, or celebrating festivals, we often draw upon the acquired experiences within our families without even consciously realizing it. Intangible heritage serves as an important link for individuals to their families and communities. It provides us with a sense of continuity and belonging. The existence of intangible cultural heritage is based on its continuous practice and transmission.
In 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (hereinafter referred to as the Convention), stressing that any Member State adopting the Convention is responsible for the inheritance of intangible cultural heritage and for preserving cultural diversity as opposed to the standardisation of cultural heritage. UNESCO recognises as intangible cultural heritage “customs, games and oral expression, knowledge and skills, with related instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces recognised by the communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, as part of their cultural heritage”.
The UNESCO Convention emphasizes that each community has the right to determine what knowledge, skills, practices, and expressions constitute its intangible cultural heritage. This heritage can remain unchanged for a long time or evolve according to the needs of the times. While the roots of intangible cultural heritage can be traced back to the past, it is also significant for people in the present. In a rapidly changing world, it is important to ensure the preservation of essential knowledge within communities. If necessary, measures should be taken to protect and safeguard this knowledge and ensure its transmission to society, particularly to younger generations.
Until August 2020, out of more than 200 countries worldwide, 180 countries had become parties to the Convention. Latvia was the eighth country to join the Convention (January 14, 2005).
Speaking of intangible cultural heritage, several keywords should be mentioned: community, inheritance, protection.
A community is any group of people who share a common intangible cultural heritage, such as knowledge, values, perceptions, or customs. The sense of community and shared intangible heritage develops among people with similar origins, occupations, or interests. Modern means of communication facilitate the formation and interaction of such communities. Each of us can belong to multiple communities simultaneously – for example, we often feel connected to our place of birth and its community even when living elsewhere. Another community forms around professional activities, while yet another may form around our hobbies. The family itself is a small (or sometimes quite large) community. The population of a country also forms a community. Communities play a vital role in preserving and safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. Not all community members necessarily possess or utilize the skills and knowledge that constitute their intangible cultural heritage daily. However, it is important that they respect and recognize them as essential to their identity.
Skills and knowledge exist as long as they have a place in people's lives: as long as they are preserved, utilized, valued, and passed on. They disappear when society no longer needs them. Due to social changes, certain knowledge or skills that could still be relevant to society gradually diminish, and the number of individuals who possess this heritage decreases. In such cases, efforts need to be made to find ways to halt this process. The community itself plays a crucial role in this regard. The community is best positioned to assess which skills require greater attention, how to preserve them best, and how to pass them on to future generations.
Intangible cultural heritage often doesn't require protection because it is a natural part of our lives: celebrating family or community festivals, preparing food – whether we have learned it from our parents or friends. It is only when certain everyday knowledge, skills, habits, or practices begin to diminish due to social changes that it becomes evident that they remain essential parts of our lives. In such cases, efforts must be made to protect and safeguard this knowledge and skills, recognizing their significance and ensuring their continuity.
However, intangible cultural heritage cannot be protected like tangible cultural heritage, such as monuments, historic sites, or natural areas. Intangible heritage is a living heritage that continuously evolves, and each generation adapts it to its own needs. Heritage that has lost significance in the eyes of a community slowly disappears. The community itself is best positioned to assess which knowledge and skills require greater attention and how to ensure their survival. It is important to learn many skills under the guidance of an experienced master or teacher. However, schools and non-formal education also play a crucial role through courses, training programs, camps, and other activities.
UNESCO forms international lists to promote the values of living cultural heritage and sharing experiences. In the UNESCO lists, 584 values from 131 countries of the world had been recorded by January 2021. Latvia has been mentioned twice in those lists – in 2003 tradition and symbolism of the Song and Dance Festival in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was recognised as a Masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity (listed in the 2008 UNESCO Representative list of intangible cultural heritage) and, in 2009, the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding included the Suiti Cultural Space. In 2022, the element "Koku pludināšana" (Tree Floating) was included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. It is also represented by The Craft Skills of Gauja Raftsmen.
The entities responsible for the implementation of the Convention in Latvia are the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia and the Latvian National Cultural Centre of Latvia. To strengthen the implementation of the principles of the Convention at the national level, on 29 September 2016, the Intangible Cultural Heritage Lawwas signed. The Law provides for establishing a list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Latvia, which includes elements of intangible cultural heritage or values which are recognised as a nationally protected cultural heritage and the inclusion of which has the support and participation of the relevant Community. List of Latvian National Intangible Cultural Heritage is created by the community with the intangible heritage and the Council. From 2017 to 2022, a total of 32 entries have been included in the Latvian List of Intangible Cultural Heritage:
Psalm singing in Northern Latgale
Singing with "pusbolss"
"Mirušo ofīcija" in Vabole and Liksna parishes
Sigulda walking stick craftsmanship
The tradition of playing the Latgale bubyns frame drum
The tradition of crafting and playing the Ievins-type harmonica
Latvian melodic zither performance
St. Petersburg harmonica performance traditions
The Craft Skills of Gauja Raftsmen
Reversible double-weaved graded colour blanket weaving in Northern Vidzeme
The skill of bobbin lace making
The Livonian cultural space
The Rucava traditional cultural space
The Upīte cultural space
Lamprey fishing and preparation skills in Carnikava
The traditional wedding rituals of the Eastern Orthodox believers of the Pededze parish
May Catholic services by wayside crosses in the Andrupene and Šķaune parishes of the Dagda municipality
May singing services by wayside crosses in Northern Latgale
Glass blowing in Līvāni
Knitting of patterned double mittens in Mazsalaca
The tradition of crafting and playing the “dūru” zither
Weawing with the Peteris Viļumsons’ rapier-type looms
Dancing tradition in Riga
The Weaving of Patterned Zemgale Skirts Using Drawlooms.
“Puzuri” and the craft of making them in Jelgava
Latvian card game zolte
Crumbs in Sturneen. Traditional psalm and funeral singing in Stirniene
Traditions and skills of knitting Latvian ethnographic mittens
Vidzeme Livonian Culture
Church cultural space
Latvian Old Believers' Church of Pomorian Church (Знаменный распев)
Weaving of the belts in Sigulda municipality in a patterned tissue pulse technique
Piebalgs cultural space
Knee belt weaving tradition in North Latgale
Barta cultural space
Collection and use of mushrooms
In accordance with the Intangible Cultural Heritage Law adopted in 2016, the Latvian National Inventory also includes the Tradition and Symbolism of the Songs and Dance Festival in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as The Suiti Cultural Space.