Ignorance versus degradation? The profession of Gypsy bear handlers and management of inconvenient intangible cultural heritage. Case study – Romania (I)
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Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have been witnessing an increasing number of entries on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. With them, critical scientific trends describing its positive and negative effects began to emerge. In this article, I discuss the sense of such entries, showing their evaluative dimension as well as the difficulties of recognizing the areas of minority cultures as heritage – the areas which despite meeting all the entry criteria are in conflict with the modern ideas of European culture. I analyze these issues, using the Gypsy/Romani culture as an example – and more specifically the profession of bear handlers in Romania, which, due to its numerous similarities in history, training methods and folklore, I treat as representative of other European regions too. The text discusses the possible origins of this occupation, the place of the Ursari in the Romanian social structure together with their financial situation, and the attitude of the Church and State to bear handlers. It also presents the methods of animal training the Gypsies have used and passed on through the centuries, as well as the reasons why this profession has been disappearing in Romania. In the final (second) part of the article, I will discuss whether there is such a thing as the management of Ursari heritage (versus the management of inconvenient heritage), and if there is – what it entails. The article uses qualitative research methods, including the analysis of historical sources (docu-ments from the offices of Moldovan, Wallachian and Transylvanian rulers and descriptions written by people travelling across former Romanian territories dated 14th–19th centuries) and ethnographic sources. In addition, the analysis also focuses on visual sources from Romanian territories associated with the Ursari as well as on the sources used during my own pilot ethnographic study on the cultural memory among the Roma from Romania.
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