Culture Documentation

Culture documentation seeks to capture and preserve the intangible cultural heritage of people groups with audio and video recordings. The goal is to preserve these practices and to make them a focus of study, as a way of valuing people around the world who rightly want to see their unique expressions and identities recognized and valued as part of the human record. Five areas of culture preservation have been identified by UNESCO and represent areas where SIL seeks to document cultural heritage.

  • Oral traditions: Oral traditions are those spoken elements of culture that are present in a given community. They are means of transmitting knowledge and cultural values and represent a community’s collective memory. This includes everything from epic songs to nursery rhymes, and from legends and tales to proverbs and riddles.
  • Performing arts: Performing arts fill many different roles in cultures, but vocal and instrumental music, dance, and theatre are present in many cultures, whether used in celebrating weddings, observing funerals, working at daily tasks, or enjoying entertainment. SIL’s Arts & Ethnomusicology personnel focus on this domain, seeking to study and use these arts in community development. The role of documentation in this domain is to preserve primary digital recordings of such artistic forms.
  • Social practices, rituals, and festive events: These events are habitual activities—whether public or private—marking the passage of time, the seasons, or important events in a person’s life. They are an important part of the shared structure and identity of a community. Examples might include coming of age ceremonies, along with courtship and wedding customs. 
  • Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe: All communities interact with the environment around them. They categorize its flora and fauna, develop methods for making life better in their environment, develop agricultural practices particular to it, and interpret and represent different features of the environment in a variety of ways. Recording such knowledge and skills is an integral part of culture documentation.
  • Knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts: Documentation is concerned not with preserving the physical craft objects of a people, but rather with preserving the knowledge and skills necessary to create them, and promoting the continuation of these arts. For example, culture documentation would produce audio and video recordings teaching the materials and procedures for producing artefacts of material culture such as clothing, baskets, bowls, or carvings.