Saunomista Kukkaromaessa Hannu Pakarinen. Kuvaaja: Hannu Pakarinen
Sauna bathing in Kukkaromäki. Photo: Hannu Pakarinen, Finnish Sauna Society

The sauna culture in Finland has been inscribed on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Intangible Cultural Heritage, European cultural heritage, International Activities

The sauna culture is the first Finnish element on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Finland ratified the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. In Finland, the Finnish Heritage Agency is responsible for the implementation of the Convention.

The sauna culture from Finland was inscribed on the UNESCO list at the December 17, 2020 meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. As authorized by the state, the Finnish Heritage Agency commits, together with Finnish sauna communities and promoters of the sauna culture, to safeguard the vitality of the sauna tradition and to highlight its importance as part of customs and wellbeing.

“At the same time, nominating the sauna tradition for inscription on the UNESCO list brings added visibility to living intangible cultural heritage that is part of our everyday life and of our celebrations. The nomination entails responsibility to safeguard the tradition for the sauna actors and for the state alike”, Leena Marsio, a Senior Adviser from the Finnish Heritage Agency, reminds.

Heating a sauna, the customs and traditions related to sauna bathing, as well as sauna in songs, beliefs, and folklore for example are part of this living intangible cultural heritage. The vitality of the sauna now hits an all-time peak: almost 90 percent of all Finns go to a sauna once a week. This popularity is also reflected in the number of saunas: there are 3.2 million of them in Finland. The tradition is passed on in families and in numerous active sauna societies.

“The nomination of the sauna culture for the UNESCO list is a result of the long-span work of sauna societies. Every sauna-going Finn can take pride in the decision taken by the UNESCO!” Marsio adds.

Support for sauna societies

As part of the submission made to the UNESCO, the sauna community has defined a number of safeguarding measures intended to support the vitality of the sauna tradition. In order to provide support for these measures, an open-for-all network of sauna actors called Saunarinki has been set up. On December 9, 2020, the Finnish Heritage Agency gave the Finnish Sauna Society a grant to launch the Saunarinki activities with from the funds earmarked to co-operation and development projects related to the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Additionally, the Finnish Heritage Agency is currently preparing protection for three public saunas by special legislation. These saunas are the Kotiharju and Arla in Helsinki and the Rajaportti sauna in Tampere.

Background: the UNESCO Convention and Lists

Finland ratified the UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. The Finnish Heritage Agency is responsible for the implementation of the Convention in Finland. The Ministry of Education and Culture is responsible for reporting to the UNESCO on the execution and monitoring of the Convention.

The Convention promotes the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage and contributes to the visibility of the various cultural traditions of communities,groups and individuals. Intangible cultural heritage may be, for example, oral tradition, performing arts, practices, rituals, and ceremonies of social life, or knowledge, skills, and practices related to nature and to the universe.

The Convention also entails both national and international inventorying of cultural heritage. The UNESCO maintains two lists of intangible cultural heritage as well as a register of good safeguarding practices. The lists aim to create visibility to the living heritage and to share best practices between countries. Before the current UNESCO meeting, the lists contain a total of 549 elements from 127 countries. The sauna tradition was one of the 50 applications under review.

The next national application submitted by Finland will be about Kaustinen fiddle playing. Finland is also a participant in the multinational application about the Nordic clinker boat tradition. Decisions on both are expected to be reached in December 2021.

For more information
Leena Marsio, Senior Advisor,
leena.marsio@museovirasto.fi, tel. 02953 36017

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