The Smithsonian has been planning to host an exhibition: “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds", showing the contents of an Indonesian shipwreck discovered by fishermen off Belitung Island in Indonesia in 1998. The problem is that instead of being properly investigated in a multi-disciplinary project according to established methodology, this historically important shipwreck was commercially mined within a period of months by a commercial treasure hunter, and thus much of the information it might have provided about the ship’s crew and cargo was lost. This has been likened, even in the US, to modern-day cultural piracy (Kate Taylor, 'Treasures Pose Ethics Issues for Smithsonian', New York Times, April 24, 2011).
The exhibition was conceived by the government of Singapore, which owns the artifacts, and Julian Raby, the director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Smithsonian's two Asian art museums. It is on display in Singapore through July and will then travel internationally. Although the Smithsonian says it has not made a final decision, the exhibition — which includes glazed pottery, rare pieces of early blue-and-white porcelain and the largest gold cup ever found from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) — is tentatively set to arrive at the Sackler in the spring of 2012.[...] The ship, which is believed to be Arab, was filled with a cargo of ninth-century Chinese ceramics and gold and silver vessels. Its discovery suggests that Tang China had substantial sea trade with the Middle East; scholars had previously thought that the trade routes were primarily over land, along the Silk Road.The company that salvaged the Belitung wreck, Seabed Explorations, is run by a German engineer, Tilman Walterfang, former director of a German concrete company who saw economic opportunities in wreck hunting in Indonesia.
when fisherman first discovered the shipwreck in early August 1998, the Indonesian government, fearful of looting, ordered Seabed Explorations to begin an immediate round-the-clock recovery operation. It started within days. Although Mr. Walterfang eventually brought in a pair of archaeologists, including one, Michael Flecker, who wrote two journal articles about the ship, Mr. Walterfang conceded that, from an academic standpoint, “the overall situation would without doubt be described as ‘less than ideal.’ ”[...] Seabed Explorations sold the majority of the 63,000 artifacts recovered to a company owned by the Singapore government, for $32 million [...] Some artifacts have ended up on eBay and other online sites.On April 5th a group of archaeologists and anthropologists from the National Academy of Sciences — including Robert McCormick Adams, a former leader of the Smithsonian — wrote a letter to G. Wayne Clough, the director of the Smithsonian, that proceeding with the proposed exhibition would "severely damage the stature and reputation" of the institution. This opinion has been shared in recent weeks by the Society for American Archaeology, the Council of American Maritime Museums and the International Committee for Underwater Cultural Heritage, as well as groups within the Smithsonian, including the members of the anthropology department and the Senate of Scientists at its National Museum of Natural History.
The salvage firm's director Walterfang was dismissive of the exhibition’s critics, suggesting that the exhibition was being used as a “Ping-Pong ball in yet another political game for the social climbers in Washington, D.C.”. Archaeologist Flecker is reported as having argued that the "purist approach of many archaeologists" is simply
not practical in developing countries like Indonesia, where governments are poor and the risk of looting is high. In those circumstances, he wrote, archaeologists and commercial salvagers should cooperate “to document those sites and the artifacts recovered from them before too much information is lost.”So a bit like an underwater Portable Antiquities Scheme then.
It will be interesting if the Smithsonian decide today not to host this ethically-questionable exhibition. If the haste and unmethodical manner in which they were excavated in our times is a criterion disqualifying Treasures from being exhibited in a proper museum, what are we to say of the hundreds of hoards and other finds hoiked out of the ground in Britain by metal-detector wielding treasure hunters? I wonder whether the Smithsonian will be seeking opinions form the British Museum and their Portable Antiquities Scheme and treasure Unit about their ethical dilemma?
Let's see if the Smithsonian allow a little thing like ethics to interfere with their exhibition plans.
An announcement on whether or not it will proceed with the show is expected in late May.