Appropriation (?) of the Month: Cultural Tourism and Intangible Heritage

Sand drawing at Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Port Vila (Julie Mitchell, 2 June 2012)

By Julie Mitchell

The traditional practice of sand drawing in Vanuatu is both a direct means of transferring cultural heritage information and a medium of communication that continues to function as a form of cultural exchange today. 


In an archipelago with well over 80 different language groups, “sandroing” is considered a form of indigenous writing, and the designs function as important mnemonic devices for recalling oral information, and incorporate complex symbolic meanings about historic events, rituals, mythological law, kinship systems, and society (UNESCO 2013; Zagala 2004).

Passed down through generations, the intricate learned designs made using one finger in a fluid single continuous line, accentuate verbal communication and transmit traditional knowledge. The sand drawing figure is traced out in sand, ash or dust and, consequently, is not enduring. Existing in the present moment, alongside the storytelling, it is then wiped out, or simply left to the wind.

Inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, sand drawings are a facet of Vanuatu “kastom” (traditional culture) actively maintained in post-colonial Vanuatu. As part of the efforts to continue and protect the tradition, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila operates Saturday “sandroing“ lessons for ni-Van children. I was among a group of fortunate spectators recently who watched as an adult instructor narrated while children proudly and carefully performed accompanying drawings in an immersive and participatory process. The examples on this particular day varied in content from ancient tales of belonging and culture origin in the islands, to a story of European black-birding ships, which indicates that this is a dynamic and evolving process, adoptive of new events as they become part of the communal identity and heritage pool.

The procedure and artistry involved is mesmerizing and many of the tourists unhesitatingly took photographs and videos. I have since seen similar videos and photographs posted online on YouTube and on tourist blogs.

Vanuatu sand drawing is illustrative of the type of complex and multifunctional intangible cultural heritage that global tourists, armed with digital technology are now able to access and share instantly via social media. Of course many other examples fit this paradigm.

Considering this photographic and digital dissemination, is it reasonable to appraise “holiday snaps” as a form of appropriation of indigenous cultural heritage? Perhaps travel images of this type, involving the capturing, storing and sharing of such content (predominantly in a digital, online format), may indeed compromise, alter, or interrupt the dynamic intangible format and traditional intention of an established multi-layered process.

There are several complications that immediately spring to mind when considering this particular situation, raising issues of context, format and function, the trajectory of intangible cultural heritage, and, of course, ownership.

The intangible becomes tangible, when it is captured as a photo or video. The holistic sand drawing process, which is designed to be dynamic and interactive, and with an evolving trajectory, becomes static in time when arrested in an image or moving images. Added to this, the traditional transferal system format is changed. Any part of the process may now be accessed and interpreted independently of the whole, including the designs, stories, or drawing technique itself — all of which are intentionally connected components. Separated from the accompanying tangibles of human interaction and the authentic medium of dust or sand, a new two-dimensional version arises in a digital format, removed from its original.

Furthermore, out of context, without the accompanying heritage knowledge of the attached stories and the interactive communal process of narrative or song, the function is also changed and the images may be considered purely as artistic designs, separated from the inherent cultural knowledge. Also, the narration or song can be viewed solely as performance art, and the story content may take on new meaning or be used out of context according to the social, political, or philosophical bias of the audience. An obvious concern of digitally disseminating heritage, besides the dichotomy of using modern technology to preserve tradition is, of course, the question of who sees it, uses it, and for what purposes.

Such candid recordings may actually be useful documentary evidence of evolution and changes to traditional processes in post-colonial communities. This has recently been the case in Peru where 50-year-old anthropological records provide a “snapshot” into the past, showing how a traditional society has changed in the modern age (Universität Bonn 2013). Also, first-hand “word of mouth” travel stories, such as seen in blog photos and online videos, will likely help to promote areas such as Vanuatu where tourism is a necessary mainstay of the economy. In fact, the Vanuatu Tourism Board actively advertises the sand drawing festival on Malekula Island on its web site (Vanuatu Travel 2013). Added to this, as is the case with Vanuatu sand drawings, the intended audience determines what versions, images and stories are presented, which reduces the onus on inappropriate dissemination as tourists are only likely to witness those considered suitable for sharing with international spectators (Alivizatou 2012; Zagala 2004). 

There are clearly situations where a digital format for recording heritage may be considered desirable and appropriate and, in fact, the Vanuatu government and UNESCO are working on a “Safeguarding Project“ that will include the establishment of a database and internet site dedicated to sand drawings (UNESCO 2013; Vanuatu Cultural Centre 2013). This involves indigenous control, input and ownership, rather than unsolicited appearances on a tourist YouTube channel or blog.

It seems that, for “holiday snapshots” of cultural heritage posted online, the dilemma is one of appropriat‘ness’ rather than appropriateion’, for intangible heritage “is not only embodied, but also inseparable from the material and social worlds of persons” (Kirschenblatt-Gimblett 2004:60). However, as globalisation and cultural tourism spread, the important questions remain – is the “innocent” holiday snap actually playing a part in an unwitting cultural appropriation, presented “trophy”-like, and out of context? Or is it helping to record and preserve a unique and fragmentary moment in a cultural heritage trajectory, and in that role, actually becoming a part of that process?

Photograph: Sand drawing at Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Port Vila (J. Mitchell, 2012, used with permission). 


References Cited

Alivizatou, Marilena. 2012. Debating Heritage Authenticity: Kastom and Development at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. International Journal of Heritage Studies 18(2):124-143.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 2004. Intangible Heritage as Metacultural Production. Museum International, 56(1-2):52-65.

UNESCO. 2013. Culture List

Universität Bonn. 2013. A treasure from the archives.

Vanuatu Cultural Centre. 2013. Sandroing Database: Intangible Cultural Heritage of Vanuatu

Vanuatu Travel. 2013. 

Zagala, Stephen. 2004. Vanuatu Sand Drawing. Museum International 56(1-2): 32-35.

Further Reading

Alivizatou, Marilena. 2012. Intangible Heritage and the Museum: New Perspectives on Cultural Preservation. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.

Cheer, Joseph, Keir Reeves and Jennifer Laing. 2013. Tourism and Traditional Culture: Land Diving in Vanuatu. Annals of Tourism Research 43:435-455.

Forsyth, Miranda. 2012. Lifting the Lid on “The Community”: Who Has the Right to Control Access to Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture? International Journal of Cultural Property 19(1):1-31.

Wendland, Wend. 2004. ‘Intangible Heritage and Intellectual Property: challenges and future prospects.’ Museum International, Vol. 56, No. 1-2, 2004.

Our Appropriation (?) of the Month features, written by IPinCH team members, highlight the complexity of 'cultural appropriation' and 'cultural appreciation'.