Cite this article

D. Cull, "Intangible Cultural Heritage and Rise of the Meme’", e-conservation magazine 22 (2011) pp. 5-7,

Intangible Cultural Heritage and
Rise of the Meme

By Daniel Cull


"The meme is not the dancer but the dance."
James Gleick

In 2003 the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) was codified, and defined as heritage that is:

“...transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity.” [2]

The convention talks of language, performance, rituals, and traditional crafts as being “vehicles” of transmission, but doesn’t attribute a particular method of transfer. I was intrigued by the ideas of transmission and recreation, and wondered whether ICH would mesh with an assertion that “all transmitted knowledge is memetic” [3]. The internet has brought the idea of the meme to popular consciousness, with famous memes such as ‘LOLCat’. The meme has been defined as: “a contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern” [3]. The meme existed prior to its popularization online, and traditional memetic concepts include; slogans, catch-phrases, images, icons, melodies, and fashions, however, an idea “is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else” [3]. Furthermore an object is not a meme, no matter the speed or repetition of production, nor of use, the object remains a “meme vehicle” [1], as does its user. Intriguingly the UNESCO convention refers to language, performance, ritual, and traditional craft as being “vehicles” of transmission.

Religion, or ritual, was identified as one vehicle for the transfer of ICH, and it seems it does exhibit a memetic nature. I recently experienced this when I walked ‘el Camino de Santiago de Compostela’, a religious pilgrimage through Galicia, in northern Spain, the pilgrimage culminates with a series of rituals at the relics in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Conservation concerns had limited the ability to perform two of the rituals, touching the Tree of Jesse, and headbutting the statue of Maestro Mateo ‘the Saint of the Bumps’, but I was able to hug the statue of St James above the alter and descend into the tomb to pray at the reliquary casket; joining these rituals as a ‘meme vehicle’. Many pilgrims on route to Santiago carry scallop shells, a walking staff and a gourd, these objects appear repeatedly in art throughout the region, especially in depictions of St James as a pilgrim (Santiago Peregrino); forming another meme vehicle. Through the realization that the rituals, symbols, art, and I were meme vehicles, it was possible to see the pilgrimage itself as a meme, and this provided one potential explanation for why the pilgrimage route continues to exist and have such resonance today.

Camino road sign.

Another vehicle for transmission was identified as language. Symbols are an excellent example of a language which exhibits the memetic nature of ICH transfer; this is especially evident in contemporary post-modern politics. As the twitter revolution continues around the world with its hashtags #jan25, #15M, and #OccupyWallStreet, museums have rushed to collect material culture pertaining to these protest movements [4]. I’m sure high on their wish list will be a Guy Fawkes mask from the film ‘V for Vendetta’, because of its use on and offline as a symbol of the collective Anonymous [5]. Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic conspirator who, in 1605, failed in an attempt to blow up the English Parliament during the state opening by the King. This was a pivotal moment in the creation of the modern British state, a moment that continues to be marked today. The annual burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes was a potent symbol of Protestant nationalism, but as a result of the secularization of the event in the mid-nineteenth century, the image of Guy Fawkes was liberated from the bonfires and replaced with contemporary figures of antagonism, leaving the image of Guy Fawkes to become a “free floating symbol” [6, 156], capable of multiple and shifting meanings. It is this image that has been embraced by protesters across the globe, mirroring the emotional climax of the film V for Vendetta in which “the audience is treated to an inspirational sight: Evey's beautiful lips, caressing the lifeless features of a Guy Fawkes mask. Evey loves the meme. She loves the symbol, its power, and the way V has wielded this power.” [6, 170] It is this love of the meme that is so relevant to the contemporary political realm, and therefore our understanding of contemporary ICH. 

To the meme the real and virtual are not boundaries, the brain and the computer serve the same vehicular function. As the meme becomes a more widely regarded concept it becomes an ever greater potential interpretive avenue for contemplating ICH, leading us to an intriguing question within the study of memes: ‘who is in charge, us or the meme?’


[1] J. Gleick," What Defines a Meme?", Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011, URL (accessed 04-11-2011)   

[2] UNESCO, Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003, URL (accessed 04-11-2011) 

[3] G. Grant, Memetic Lexicon, 1990, HTMLized by Anders Sandberg, 1994, altered and expanded by David McFadzean, 1995-1999, URL (accessed 04-11-2011)

[4] M. Machado  and V. Hilbig, Statement: Occupy Wall Street Collecting, Smithsonian/National Museum of American History, URL (accessed 04-11-2011)

[5] Anonymous is a collective pseudonym, in the tradition of Luther Blisset, Nedd Ludd, or Captain Swing

[6] L. Call, "A Is for Anarchy, V is for Vendetta: Images of Guy Fawkes and the Creation of Post-modern Anarchism", Anarchist Studies 16(2), 2008

About the author

Daniel Cull
Assistant Conservator
The Musical Instrument Museum

Daniel Cull is a Conservator, Wikipedian, Social Networker, and Blogger from the West Country of the British Isles. Trained at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, where he received a BSc in Archaeology, MA in Principles of conservation, and an MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums. He was later awarded an Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship at the National Museum of the American Indian/Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. He currently works as an ethnographic musical instrument conservator at the Musical Instrument Museum,in Arizona.


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