Mapping UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage spots

Looking at the most recent UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity it’s clear that these “elements,” as they’re called, are all over the map.

There’s painting, weaving, pizza making and spring rituals: but while they offer up videos, photos and text — there’s no actual map of these landmarks in sight.

Making that map shines a spotlight on why organizing data is crucial — and how every organization is a data trove and should be its own best data detective. Plotting visually can inform decision making and highlight patterns – inside trends to be worked into deeper groves or used to recalucate course. The list, according to UNESCO, is “made up of those intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.”


Get them into a spreadsheet (more on this below) and a couple of things jump out. First, most of the 2017 picks reside in Europe/Eurasia with a substantial scattering in Asia but only a handful in Africa and South America combined.

The other is that the bulk of 2017 intangibles are rituals of some kind (15) followed by music (8) crafts (7) then dance, food, games (3 each) art (2) and a justice system.  The total adds up to over 33 because they are practiced in more than one country, another reason it’s interesting to connect the dots on a map.

These classifications are mine and while a handful are arguably more than one category (is the “art of crafting and playing a musical instrument” an art, a craft or music?) the obfuscating language does a disservice to these traditions.

The third, following from the other two points, is that the list is profoundly political.

Take two of the 2017 foods. Well, I’m calling them that: technically, pizza isn’t on the list, it’s the “art of the Neapolitan pizzaiuolo.”  (Nowhere in the official entry is the product of this art mentioned.) According to the New York Times, the pizza makers of Naples owe the honor to Pier Luigi Petrillo, an Italian professor and expert in “lobbying theories and techniques,” who has three winning UNESCO bids under his belt — the Mediterranean diet and Zibibbo wine-making in Sicily.

Similarly, there’s “dolma making and sharing” in Azerbaijan. More so than the pizza — whose most classic version mimics the Italian flag — dolmas are one of those foods associated with entire regions rather than a single country. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, defines dolmas as “popular in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the eastern Mediterranean.” The Encyclopedia Britannica is more restrictive – limiting it to “Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine” yet Wikipedia defines them broadly as “a family of stuffed vegetable dishes common in the Mediterranean cuisine and surrounding regions including the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia, Central Asia and Middle East.” All note the term hails from Greek/Turkish origins.

It’s hard to say what the consequences of being awarded intangible treasure status are, but in this case it does seem — like Iran, awarded in this round a game called Chogan that Wikipedia re-directs to polo – that they could be contentious.

For someone with more patience: since 2008 when the quest to list intangibles began, there are 470 elements in 117 countries, it’d be interesting to see a good representation of the geographical distribution to date and see what pops out. This Wikimedia map takes a stab at it, but the color coding is eye-crossing at best. (You’ll also notice that neither the United States nor Canada have any intangibles — although they’re UNESCO members, they didn’t join the nominating countries for this project.) Continue reading