Back to overview

Identifying "living traditions" in Switzerland: Recreating federalism through the application of the UNESCO Convention

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)
Publication date 2012
Author GRAEZER BIDEAU Florence,
Project Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Midas Touch?
Show all

Contribution to book (peer-reviewed)

Book Heritage Regimes and the State
Editor , BENDIX Regina F.
Publisher Göttingen University Press, Göttingen
Page(s) 303 - 326
ISBN 978-3-86395-075-0
Title of proceedings Heritage Regimes and the State

Open Access


A recent headline in a national French-language newspaper, "Yodeling or multimedia: which culture does Switzerland need?" (Fournier and Dufour 2011), is interestingly emblematic of what has happened since 2008, the year Switzerland ratified the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. During this period, federal and cantonal officials worked with experts and advisors to prepare the public launching, on September 2, 2010, of a national program for identifying "living traditions", the official translation of the technical term "intangible cultural heritage" (ICH). The process of identifying Swiss ICH is still under way and, through participant observation, I have had the opportunity to investigate the mechanisms and repercussions of Switzerland's ICH inventory. The newspaper article cited above clearly reflects the current political debate over the new law for funding culture, scheduled to come into force at the beginning of 2012; but by defining Swiss culture ("yodeling or multimedia") as a choice between the dichotomous terms of tradition and modernity, and by proposing a functionalist approach to culture ("which culture does Switzerland need?") it obscures what is really at stake in the federalist context. I argue here that the question should be rephrased as "who is deciding?" (the federal government or the 26 cantons), rather that "what is decided?" (traditional or modern expressions of Swiss culture), with the sub-question, "who are the legitimate experts" on questions of culture? Or, more generally, what role does expertise play in the constitution of Switzerland's relations to its "living traditions"? ...