Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds
Smithsonian Hosts Discussion on Issues Surrounding the Exhibition of the Belitung Cargo
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April 25, 2011
Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian Institution, hosted a meeting April 25 to discuss issues surrounding the exhibition "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds."
Participating in the discussion were 15 professionals representing various fields, including anthropology and marine archaeology, art history, and museum studies, as well as government experts and key Smithsonian staff. They reviewed the facts of the Belitung shipwreck and addressed related ethical and professional issues.
The discussion is one step in the Smithsonian's internal decision-making process, designed to address sensitive issues related to upcoming exhibitions. A number of professional organizations dedicated to underwater archaeology have expressed concerns about the involvement of a commercial salvage enterprise in the excavation of the Belitung shipwreck. They argue that commercial involvement compromises the task of documenting an excavation and leads to exploitation of the site. Others contend that public-private partnerships can help prevent loss and dispersal through looting and commercial fishing, and stress that such partnerships are especially valuable in regions such as Southeast Asia, where underwater cultural heritage needs are great but resources and expertise are scarce.
The Belitung shipwreck had lain undisturbed on the ocean floor for more than 1,100 years when sea-cucumber divers discovered it off the coast of Indonesia's Belitung Island in 1998. Found in shallow water, the shipwreck was immediately vulnerable to looting and accidental destruction from fishing activity. Recognizing the danger to the site, Indonesian authorities granted a license to a commercial salvage company to recover the ship and its cargo.
The discovery of the shipwreck and the results of subsequent research have changed what we know about trade between China and West Asia. The ship, an Arab dhow, and its contents confirm the existence of a Maritime Silk Route alluded to in ancient Chinese and Arabic texts. They also show that China was a manufacturing giant more than a millennium ago, much like it is today.
If approved, the Sackler's proposed "Shipwrecked" exhibition would take place in the spring of 2012. The exhibition would feature some 300 artifacts selected from about 60,000 Tang dynasty objects found in the ninth-century shipwreck, ranging from mass-produced ceramics to rare items of finely worked gold.
A decision about whether the Sackler will host "Shipwrecked" will be announced in late May.
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