Controversy at the Smithsonian

On Monday, the Smithsonian Institution hosted a discussion surrounding whether or not to go forward with the proposed spring 2012 exhibition Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds. The Chinese artifacts included in the exhibition were found among the remains of an ancient trade-vessel off the coast of the Indonesian island of Belitung in 1998.

At issue here is the fact that the artifacts were removed from the shipwreck by a commercial excavation company, a practice that many archaeologists deem unethical. On April 5, a group of archaeologists and anthropologists from the National Academy of Sciences, including former Smithsonian Secretary Robert McCormick Adams, signed a letter to current Smithsonian head G. Wayne Clough condemning the exhibition on the grounds that it would "severely damage the stature and reputation" of the institution. Other groups, both within and without the Smithsonian Institution, have also expressed concerns.

The Arab merchant ship, which sank in the Java sea twelve centuries ago, contains the largest group of Tang dynasty artifacts ever found at a single site, including cooking utensils, measuring weights, spice jars, bronze mirrors, silver and gold vessels, and glazed ceramic wares. The discovery offers new and surprising insights into maritime trade patterns between the Abbasid Empire in the Middle East and Tang dynasty China.

The shipwreck was salvaged by a commercial venture called Seabed Explorations, run by German engineer Tilman Walterfang, who moved to Indonesia in the early 1990s in the hopes of profiting from the excavation of local underwater heritage.

In 2001, UNESCO enacted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, providing a legal and administrative framework for the protection of all cultural, historical or archaeological objects which have been underwater for at least 100 years. The treaty explicitly calls on all signatory states to protect underwater cultural heritage from being commercially exploited for trade or speculation and states that preference is given to the in situ preservation of underwater heritage on the seabed in which it was found.

But Indonesia, which has not ratified the 2001 Convention, permits commercial excavation of underwater heritage by licensed companies provided that the profits from sale are split with the Indonesian government.

Lacking the resources to excavate or secure the Belitung site on its own, Indonesia's National Committee for Salvage and Utilization of Valuable Cargo Objects from Sunken Ships issued a license to Seabed Explorers to excavate the vessel's cargo. The recovered objects underwent conservation treatment, before being sold to the Sentosa Leisure Group, an entity created by the Singaporean government, for $32 million.

While some archaeologists were involved in the project, including Michael Flecker, who published three articles about the shipwreck, the excavation was not carried out as methodically as many archaeologists would have liked. Commercial ventures are considered problematic because they often do not document and research the site in accordance with academic norms, potentially resulting in the destruction of archaeological sites and the loss of contextual information necessary in the interpretation of the archaeological record. In extreme cases, commercial enterprises have destroyed large portions of the cargo recovered from a wreck by dumping it back into the sea in order to inflate prices.

Going forward with the exhibition, critics charge, sends a signal to Indonesia and other countries with rich underwater cultural heritage that the commercialization of subaquatic artifacts, which they deem tantamount to modern-day piracy, is acceptable. But defenders of public-private partnerships claim that without them, much of this heritage would be destroyed or left vulnerable to looting, particularly in developing countries like Indonesia which lack the resources and expertise for major underwater archaeological surveys and excavations.

Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery where the exhibition is slated to occur, has defended the show on the grounds that the excavation process was legal under Indonesian law, that trained archaeologists were involved in the process and took care to record details of the site and take samples from the hull of the boat, for example, that may lend insight to researchers, and that the objects were kept largely together and will form part of the permanent collection of a museum in Singapore.

300 of the roughly 63,000 artifacts taken from the site are included in the Shipwrecked exhibition. Currently on display at Singapore's new ArtScience museum through July 31, they are slated to go on a world tour for the next five to six years. Following Monday's meeting, the Smithsonian has said it will announce its decision regarding the exhibition by late May. The debates and the decision could have repercussions for other museums worldwide.

Given the importance of the site, the Belitung shipwreck ought undoubtedly to have been excavated non-commercially in accordance with archaeological standards. But whether or not the Smithsonian chooses to go forward with Shipwrecked is only the beginning of the discussion. Government officials in Washington ought to take notice and consider ratifying the 2001 UNESCO Convention. The Convention is the single most important legal instrument for protecting underwater cultural heritage beyond territorial waters. Without a critical mass of participating countries, however, the convention does not carry as much weight. In 1983, the United States became the first large art-importing country to ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, prompting other nations like France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom to get on board. Now is the time for the United States to display the same sort of leadership, becoming one of the first major maritime nations to ratify the 2001 Convention. Only then will the archaeological treasures under the sea receive the same protection as the 1970 Convention guarantees for cultural heritage on land.