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ICOMOS – the International Council on Monuments and Sites – was founded in 1965 and its mission is to provide an international framework for the appropriate treatment of architectural and archaeological sites.

In 1994 ICOMOS compiled the ‘Nara Charter on Authenticity’ which sets out a framework to managing the intangible aspects of cultural heritage (click here) and seeks to enhance the irreplaceable cultural diversity around the World.

So, who has heard of the Charter? I for one had not until a colleague brought it to my attention. Having indulged much time in the theories of architectural heritage I am a little bemused how this has escaped my attention. Perhaps I blinked and missed a subtle reference to it in a document many moons ago…

Why bring this up now? ICOMOS is hosting a symposium in Japan (1) on 29th October; the theme: ‘Risk to Identity: Loss of Traditions and Collective Memory’. Principally this will review the concepts enshrined in the Nara Charter – how to effectively protect and enhance the intangible rather than simply physical heritage.

The impact of not addressing the intangible, or cultural, influences upon our built heritage (both individual buildings and the collective built environment) is perhaps most evident when a place feels like a ‘stage setting’ – a place with a sense of emptiness. The most direct example of this would be a façade retention scheme (see my previous post as an example here) where nothing of the original building is retained except for the ‘street scene’.

A centre for heritage tourism may take its ‘theme’ too far (or too seriously?) and create a world within a world where nothing is allowed to change: the local community gradually loses its sense of identity – because time doesn’t stand still; people move on and cultures develop. The overview of the symposium highlights, ‘…nostalgia-tinged leisure may not only overlay the local significance of the sites, it may also transform them into places that are viewed as essentially alien to the local communities, whose involvement may be reduced to employment in tourism—catering to the needs of outsiders, rather than enhancing their own collective memory.’ (click here for the full overview text).

Undoubtedly due to its very (intangible) nature this framework of guidance to cultural identity may put a meaningful discussion out of easy reach for busy professionals. Equally since it deals with localised cultures and traditions it may only be possible to access relevant intangible impacts upon a proposed scheme by extensive engagement with local communities. This immediately poses a challenge not only of the particular skills community engagement demands, but also perhaps the sheer time that would be involved.

Where a community is engaged in a local project the intangible is commonly inherent in the scheme. The Prince’s Regeneration Trust for example, runs courses to assist communities in driving a scheme forward – typically saving a building to be developed and re-used. Where, perhaps, the engagement with the intangible is most lacking is the larger-scale developments, or areas of towns and cities that have clear preservation remits of the tangible, but do not demand assessments of the intangible.

The discussion of cultural heritage may be challenging, but we need to find a way to engage with it – otherwise we’ll be left with soulless heritage areas where we can touch but we can’t feel.


  1. The Nara Charter is named after Nara in Japan where the experts originally put together the framework.
  2. My thanks go to Stefania Scarsini for bringing the Nara Charter to my attention.