Tang Cargo: To Exhibit Or Not To Exhibit –- What Is Best For This Cultural Resource?

15 Aug 2011 11:28 AM | Anonymous

By Laura Gongaware and Ole Varmer 

The Smithsonian recently announced its decision to postpone its “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” exhibit scheduled to open in the spring of 2012 (http://www.asia.si.edu/shipwrecked/).  The exhibit, organized by the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Singapore’s National Heritage Board and Tourism Board, features artifacts from the controversial Belitung shipwreck.  The ship is a 9th century Arabian dhow and its artifacts provide some of the first evidence of the maritime component of the well documented “Silk Road” that carried goods from the Far East to the Levantine coast and Europe.  

Shortly after local fishermen discovered the wreck in 1998 off the coast of Belitung Island in Indonesia, the cargo of Tang Dynasty ceramics, bronze mirrors, silver boxes, and gold dishes fell victim to looting.  Indonesia quickly granted a salvage permit to Seabed Explorations (http://www.seabedexplorations.com), a commercial salvage company based out of New Zealand, and in two short field seasons, Seabed raised 63,000 artifacts.  In 2005, Seabed sold those artifacts to a company owned by the government of Singapore for $32 million.  Singapore bought the collection with the intention of building a permanent museum, and, with the help of the Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Gallery, Singapore organized a five year traveling exhibit with scheduled stops at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, the Sackler Gallery in the U.S., and several other museums throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Australia.  The exhibit at the ArtScience Museum was scheduled to wrap up at the end of July, but the museum just recently extended its engagement through October.  

Ethical and Legal Responsibilities

The Smithsonian’s decision to postpone the exhibit at the Sackler Gallery followed an April 25 meeting held to discuss whether the planned exhibit violated the museum’s professional ethics.  The museum is now exploring ways to transform the exhibit to foster a greater understanding of underwater cultural heritage and the importance of proper archaeological excavation and protection. The Smithsonian has said that the salvage was “fully legal for the relevant jurisdiction” as the laws of Indonesia allow for the salvage and utilization of valuable cargo from sunken ships.  However, Indonesia and Singapore are both parties to the Law of the Sea Convention and under that  Convention all Parties have a duty to protect objects found at sea and to cooperate for that purposeundefinedIndonesia and Singapore’s actions regarding the Belitung wreck may not be consistent with those duties.  Additionally, even though Indonesia and Singapore are not parties to the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, its provisions may prevent the exhibition of the collection in States that are Parties to that Convention. The 2001 UNESCO Convention may also impact museums with codes of ethics prohibiting the exhibition of collections that were subject to “commercial exploitation.”  

A Case of Commercial Exploitation?

At the very least, the 2001 UNESCO Convention and its Annex Rules apply to all State Parties.  In addition, States like the U.S. and U.K. are complying with the Annex Rules as a matter of policy and practice and that compliance contributes to the Annex being considered the current customary international standard.  Rule Two of the Annex provides that “the commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage for trade or speculation or its irretrievable dispersal is fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage. Underwater cultural heritage shall not be traded, sold, bought or bartered as commercial goods.”  As the Belitung wreck was subject to a commercial salvage contract and the artifacts from the wreck were sold as commercial goods, the wreck appears to fall within the definition of “commercial exploitation.” 

But is the Belitung wreck truly a clear cut case of commercial exploitation?  Southeastern Asia is known for its looting problem.  Several artifacts believed to be from the Belitung wreck site have been found on eBay.  Seabed says these are not artifacts they salvaged but rather artifacts that were looted either before they began their salvage of the wreck or after the first field season when a monsoon interrupted their work.  According to Michael Flecker, the archaeologist employed by Seabed during the second field season, the bottom half of the ewer with the dragon-head stopper was one of the victims of this looting and would have been lost had Seabed not negotiated with local fishermen for its return. However, even if the government of Indonesia was justified in authorizing the recovery of artifacts through commercial salvage services, those services must still be done in a professional archaeological manner.  This includes the conservation and curation of the Belitung collection for the benefit of the public. 

Even assuming the salvage of the Belitung wreck was "commercial exploitation" under the 2001 UNESCO Convention, what does this mean for museums, like the Smithsonian Institution that are interested in telling the story of that resource?  And is an outright ban best for a collection of artifacts from one of the oldest wrecks discovered in Southeast Asia?

These and other issues will be explored in subsequent blogs leading up to our conference on November 3  "Keeping the Lid on Davy Jones' Locker: The Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage from Titanic to Today" (http://www.culturalheritagelaw.org/2011conference)

Photo courtesy of Michael Flecker. 

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