Recognising intangible cultural heritage on World Heritage Day

World Heritage Day is an opportunity for us to think critically about how heritage is defined, and whose heritage is valued in international conventions and state-defined heritage legislation.

Image by Junaidrao - James Price Point, Western Australia. Sourced via Flickr Commons.

The theme for World Heritage Day 2018 is ‘Heritage for Generations’, which is the perfect time to discuss intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is the ‘invisible’ elements of culture that imprint on the identity of groups, and it is experienced through customs, history and values. It is generational, and it defines the practices and identity of the world’s indigenous peoples.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage was established by UNESCO On October 17, 2003, as a way to build global awareness on the importance of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage.1 While the Convention was significant in that it provided international recognition of the role that intangible cultural heritage plays in the practices and identity of the world’s indigenous peoples; this recognition has failed to trickle down into the legislative and policy rhetoric of settler colonial states, such as Australia.

In the context of Australia, a heritage ‘hierarchy’ exists where the types of heritage that are ‘valued’, continue to reflect Eurocentric and scientific ideas that privilege natural or tangible forms of heritage over cultural or intangible heritage (Meskell and Van Damme, 2007, p.146). This means that less value is placed on the kinds of cultural heritage that are seen to be of cultural significance for First Australian peoples.

The knowledge that First Australians hold about their heritage also fails to be recognised, and First Australian cultural heritage legislation continues to remain under the control and definitional power of the state, rather than the distinct nations that know their heritages in specific cultural terms (Smith, & Akagawa, 2009, p. 209).  This reflects the inherent power imbalances that are perpetuated in international Convention and state-defined heritage legislation.

The disregard for intangible cultural heritage is especially evident in the context of mining, where development projects directly interfere with the cultural heritage values of First Australians. I draw this argument from the findings of my Honours research (2016), which explored the power relations between the Western Australian State Government and the Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr people in the case of the proposed Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) precinct development on James Price Point (JPP), in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The case of James Price Point saw the Western Australian State Government under the leadership of former Premier Colin Barnett, for a period of over 7 years, attempt to establish a liquefied natural gas processing precinct on James Price Point. The actions taken by the State Government were challenged by the local community and environmental organisations, on the basis that the State Government failed to acknowledge the natural and environmental significance of the region. However, the Goolarabooloo people and other Kimberley First Australians feared that the development would cause irresolvable damage to the Lurujarri Trail which is an 80-kilometre long songline2 (Botsman, 2013, p.19).

When examining the case of James Price Point, it becomes evident that cultural heritage legislation in Australia fails to protect First Australian cultural heritage, particularly in the context of state-sanctioned mineral development. This is not surprising when considering that section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) allows for registered cultural heritage sites to be used for other ‘purposes’ if decided on by the Heritage Minister and the Premier. The other purpose is typically mining, which has often resulted in the site’s destruction (O’Faircheallaigh, 2008, p.33). The lack of acknowledgment of First Australian cultural heritage can be linked to the distinct heritage ‘hierarchy’ which provides the basis for identifying what and whose heritage is ‘worth’ protecting.

This hierarchy is further reflected in the case James Price Point, as heritage that was seen to be distinctly ‘natural’ or ‘archaeological’ was hailed as being highly valuable, and therefore worth protecting. The fossilised dinosaur footprints discovered in the rocks of James Price Point, and a humpback whale nursery in the surrounding waters were used by archaeologists and environmental groups as the defining arguments as to why development should not occur in the region. On the other hand, First Australian intangible cultural heritage was rarely acknowledged outside of discourse which came directly from the Goolarabooloo, and Jabirr Jabirr people themselves and the value of the songlines of the Lurujarri Trail were completely dismissed in the State Governments evaluations, who suggested the songlines were of little cultural value.

The fact that the songlines of the Lurujarri Trail were not widely regarded as culturally significant can be linked to the arguments of Harrison and Hughes (2009, p.238), who suggest that it is common for the leaders of settler societies to proclaim intangible cultural heritage as inferior, as a way to justify their own interests and authority as invading outsiders. The lack of acknowledgment of the role that intangible heritage plays for the cultural practices and identity of First Australians is just one example of how cultural heritage discourse tends to portray First Australians as invalid ‘knowers’ (Hall, 2014, p.378) and institutions such as governments as experts (Chilisa, 2012, p.8). This continues the colonial project through a widespread failure to recognise indigenous knowledges, experiences and history (Marsh, 2013, p.178).

World Heritage Day provides an opportunity for us to reflect on how heritage is defined and valued on international and local scales. While we are beginning to see incremental shifts in the way that heritage is valued and defined, a broader acknowledgment of intangible cultural heritage and the role it plays in the lives of indigenous peoples is required. Such recognition can work towards highlighting the importance of indigenous knowledge and enrich and deepen our understanding of their significant cultural heritage, so that it can be protected for future generations.


Botsmon, P. (2011). Law below the Top Soil. Report by Save the Kimberley. Access here.
Hall, L. (2014). ‘With’ not ‘About’- Emerging Paradigms for Research in aCross-Cultural Space, International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 37(4):376-389.
Harrison, R., & Hughes, L. (2009). Heritage, Colonialism and Postcolonialism (Chapter 7 pp.234-269). In R. Harrison (ed.), Understanding the Politics of Heritage. London: Manchester University Press.
Marsh, J. K. (2013). Decolonising the Interface between Indigenous Peoples and Mining Companies in Australia: Making Space for Cultural Heritage Sites. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 54(2):171-184.
Meskell, L. & Van Damme, L. (2007). Heritage Ethics and Descendant Communities (chapter 6, pp.131-151). In C. Colwell-Chanthaphonh & T. Ferguson (eds.) Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendant Communities. Lanham: Altamira Press.
O’Faircheallaigh, C. (2008). Negotiating Cultural Heritage? Aboriginal–MiningCompany Agreements in Australia. Development and Change, 39(1):25-51.
Smith, L., and Akagawa, N. (2009). Intangible Heritage. London & New York: Routledge.
Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous Research Methodologies. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, Inc.
Truscott, Marilyn. (2000). ‘Intangible values’ as heritage in Australia. Historic Environment, 14(5), 22-30.


1. UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage” (UNESCO, 2003, Article 2).
2. NAIDOC (et, al., 2016) explains that “songlines are recorded in traditional songs, stories, dance and art. They carry significant spiritual and cultural connection to knowledge, customs, ceremony and Lore of many Aboriginal nations and Torres Strait Islander language groups” (NAIDOC, et, al., 2016, n.p).

Anastasia Mortimer is the Content Editor & Knowledge Translation Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.