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A Barn Hunting Break: Discussing Intangible Cultural Heritage

There’s been a bit of a hiatus here on the barn blog. I just returned from a five day trip to Edmonton for the Alberta Museums Association annual conference. I thought I was leaving barns far behind as I embarked on the 900 or so kilometre drive to the conference, but I found myself scoping out barns along Highways 11 and 16 and talking about barns an awful lot while I was at the conference.

Near Cadillac, SK, this barn intrigued me enough to stop on the road to photograph it.
The theme of the conference this year was Intangible Cultural Heritage, often referred to as ICH. It’s a mouthful to say, and can be a bit hard to understand at first. Basically, ICH considers as important those aspects of our cultural heritage that are difficult to pin down. It is defined by a UNESCO Convention which reads, in part, that ICH “includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts” (“What is Intangible Heritage?”   Thus far more than 150 countries have signed on to the convention, which was created 10 years ago. Canada is one of the few countries in the world that has not. However, Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec have implemented the programme at a provincial level, and I’ve been fortunate to work with the concept hands-on during my time as a student in the Folklore programme at Memorial University. Other provinces are beginning to follow suit, and it is my hope that western Canadian provinces will soon adopt similar programmes modelled after the successes in Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec.
This barn is on its way to becoming intangible as it slowly decays on the prairie. 
So, where do barns come in? If intangible is “unable to touched, not solid or real”(Collins Dictionary of Current English), then tangible is the opposite, and if anything is tangible it’s a building. Barns are tangible heritage, albeit in a fragile form as their original uses have become redundant. However, my study of barns does not include just the tangible. If it did, I would simply document a bunch of barns and call it a day. But my somewhat guilty confession is that the tangible heritage of barns interests me only as a means to an end. The building itself, with its boards and nails and cement is just the beginning. It is the intangible that intrigues me, and though barns are very much tangible entities, there is a great deal of intangible cultural heritage interwoven into their existence.
Take for one example a hay sling in a barn. These were a common feature on many Saskatchewan barns and were used to facilitate the movement of hay from the ground level where it was brought from the fields on carts or wagons and then hauled up into the loft. The hay sling is a tangible object. But the knowledge around how to actually use the sling is intangible. In many cases it only exists in the minds and memories of those who actually worked with them. The process may have been written down at one point, however it would differ from barn to barn, from person to person. It is only through speaking to what we folklorists call informants or consultants that the intangible can be teased from the tangible. And hopefully I’ll finally understand how a hay sling actually works, because just from seeing it, I cannot picture the operation.
The intangible is the stories and memories about a place, the knowledge of how to use certain things, how to complete certain tasks, how to interact with the local environment. I apologise for the use of a rather overused simile, but it is an apt one here. When it comes to studying the past, and how the past lives on in the present, tangible heritage such as buildings are like the skeleton, the bare bones of the larger picture. Only when the intangible is considered does the bone house come to life, stories and memories being the lifeblood of it all, its beating heart. Once we start to examine intangible culture, we begin to understand that heritage is a living thing. 
This barn near Ceylon, SK certainly has many stories to tell.

One comment on “A Barn Hunting Break: Discussing Intangible Cultural Heritage

  1. Anonymous says:

    I have never heard of a hay sling. Do you have a photo of it? I would love to have some of those beautiful old barn boards…

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