The Plan of Measures for the Safeguarding of the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi is a participative applied research project that focuses on Sicilian traditional puppet theatre, the Opera dei Pupi, which UNESCO declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001.
It was conceived and implemented by Palermo’s Associazione per la Conservazione delle Tradizioni Popolari in 2019-2020, in its capacity as referent organization of the Italian Network of Organizations for the Protection, Promotion, and Enhancement of the Opera dei Pupi: #OPERADEIPUPI.IT#, which includes 12 Sicilian pupi theatre companies.
The Association is a non-lucrative organization operating in demo-ethno-anthropological science, museum, theatre, art and music. Its history is linked to Antonio Pasqualino (1931 - 1995), a surgeon and a distinguished anthropologist. His research mainly focuses on the Opera dei Pupi, which in the mid-1900s was heading towards full decline. In 1965, together with a group of intellectuals, he founded the Association. He and his wife, Janne Vibaek, were collecting props and documents that they saved from destruction and oblivion. These are now displayed at the International Puppet Museum, which the Association founded in 1975. Today it houses 5,000 items, including the largest and most complete collection of pupi from Palermo, Catania and Naples, together with puppets used in other figure theatre traditions, either inscribed in the UNESCO’s List or not, and contemporary puppets.
Catanese puppet on stage
Established during difficult years for the Opera dei Pupi, the Association-Museum launched a participative, forward-looking, multi-year programmatic framework based on an intercultural and multidisciplinary approach for safeguarding this heritage in close cooperation with the pupi companies. It advocated for the recognition of the Opera dei Pupi by UNESCO, which led to its proclamation and since 2014, it has been among the NGOs accredited to provide advisory services to the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (registration number NGO-90316). In 2015, it was inscribed in the Directory of National Research - ANR of the Italian Ministry for University and Research; in 2018, the Italian Ministry of Culture enlisted it in its list of cultural organizations of great and established value according to the Law no. 534/1996, art. 1.
Even if the Association and the heritage community have done much, there is still a poor and fragile synergy between isolated and sporadic safeguarding and enhancement actions and the identification and enforcement of legal, administrative, financial and technical procedures and measures. Much remains to be done regarding the programming, including its financial aspects and defining policies that outline proper strategies for the region's sustainable development. Many challenges, risks, requirements and priorities undermine the process of transmission of the puppeteers’ heritage and the Element’s viability.
It is in response to these needs that the Association conceived the Opera dei Pupi Safeguarding Plan, within the framework of the European policy on cultural heritage, following the principles of the Faro Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage and its Operational Directives.
The project, which entailed the active participation of the heritage community, gave new impetus to a process aimed at encouraging democratic participation and social responsibility, solicited scientific, creative and educational activities capable of promoting cultural diversity, mutual understanding and social cohesion through the dissemination of culture, theatre and art, territorial rebalancing and the revitalization of small towns and in disadvantaged territories through intangible cultural heritage.
The main activity was a research campaign on the contemporary Sicilian Opera dei Pupi, aimed at assessing the Element's current state and identifying its cultural, artistic, historical, environmental, scientific, and technical challenges. It addressed recent and current safeguarding measures and documented the state of the practice of the Opera dei Pupi and its tangible heritage. It surveyed active practitioners, families, companies, craftsmen, collections, and museums. It identified challenges that, since the crisis of the 1950s, have been threatening the transmission process of this live heritage.
Measures and recommendations were thus identified and organized into a Safeguarding Plan, the first to have been drafted in Italy in November 2020.
This document, in Italian, English, and French and freely accessible online, recommends the adoption of participatory and multi-level governance with a view to sustainable development. It identifies the priorities for intervention and outlines safeguarding strategies, methods, and implementation tools; it envisions synergies with tourist, cultural, educational, economic, and creative spheres, demonstrating how this intangible cultural heritage contributes to the strengthening and support of sustainable, year-round tourism, local and national development, and can contribute to reaching some of the objectives of the Agenda 2030.
The development and drafting of this Plan were entrusted to a Scientific Committee, producing its main guidelines, and an Editorial Board responsible for analyzing and processing research outcomes and consulting with the heritage community. It also drew on the technical and scientific recommendations of the UNESCO Office at the General Secretariat of the Italian Ministry of Culture, which financed the project, according to Law no. 77/2006.
Since the project was implemented during the pandemic, some adaptations were necessary. Closed-door meetings and consultations were organized always at a distance, and experts and representatives from public institutions were called upon to support the companies through urgent safeguarding measures. Communication and promotional activities became fundamental to give maximum visibility to the project but also to denounce the crisis triggered and sometimes aggravated by the implementation of the necessary but drastic measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication on social media offered a new opportunity to raise awareness and call for wide participation.
The Opera dei Pupi safeguarding plan thus experienced new social cohesion paths to promote sustainable cultural, social, economic and environmental development and obtained strong forms of collaboration and aggregation with a view to responsibility, participation, and solidarity.
Venerando Gargano introduces the Opera dei pupi before a show
In 2022, this Plan of Measures for the Safeguarding of the Sicilian Opera dei Pupi obtained the European Heritage Award / Europa Nostra Award, granted by the European Council. The project was selected in the Research section, which focuses on innovative and reproducible applied research leading to tangible effects for safeguarding and enhancing cultural heritage and/or improving the access, enjoyment and understanding of heritage assets by communities. In particular, the Award’s jury emphasized that “This project is a best practice example for the safeguarding and sustainable management of intangible cultural heritage. Safeguarding of Sicilian Puppet Theatre has successfully responded to the needs of a tradition with ancient origins. It has had a real impact on an intangible tradition with specific material elements. It has increased access to this heritage and underlined the value of this specific cultural heritage to sustainability in this region”. The Award increased the Opera dei Pupi's visibility and stressed the importance of safeguarding this heritage.
The Association and the heritage community continue working to follow up the ongoing activities and transform the Safeguarding Plan’s recommendations into action. A new Detailed Strategic Plan will be drafted by August 2023, financed again by the Ministry of Culture - UNESCO Office and will plan short, medium and long-term actions.
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