Controversy about “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Wind”

   |  9 May 2011  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Washington, 9 May 2011, Art Media Agency (AMA)

Exhibition “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Wind”, planned for 2012 at the Smithsonian Institution, is the subject of much debate due to the looting of shipwrecks.

In 1998, sea cucumber fishermen discovered a shipwreck off Indonesia. Inside, they found over 600,00o china and ceramic objects. The shipwreck discovery is considered to be one of the greatest ever. At first, the Indonesian government did not forbid the looting of this Arab ship, going back to 1,000 years, but they finally called in German company Seabed Exploration, that specializes in submarine extractions.

Most of the objects are currently housed in Singapore for exhibition “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.”  The government bought the greatest part of the loot from Seabed Exploration for 32 M$and left the Indonesian government items worth 2.5M$ only.

Until now, the debate was restricted to South-East Asia, but since the Smithsonian Institute’s announcement that it would host the exhibition in 2012, the controversy extended to the USA.  The American museum is part of the Council of American Maritime Museums and their ethic claims that no member is allowed to exhibit works obtained from robberies or trade exploitation. According to Kimberly Faulk, member of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology, to exhibit looted items “would be like legalising treasure hunts and pillage.”

Not everyone is of the same opinion. Julian Ruby, the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian Institution, declares that the works were not looted and that the company was legally called in by the Indonesian government to extract the objects from the shipwreck. Archaeologist Michael Flecker, who worked with Seabed on the extraction, affirms that the Indonesian government could not afford to guard their territorial waters and thus “made the best they could to avoid the destruction of the shipwreck” by calling in Seabed.

The debate is far from being closed.  The number of complaints pertaining to the “Shipwrecked” exhibition is rising and the Smithsonian held an extraordinary meeting on 25 April.  An announcement is expected to be made at the end of May as to the possible cancellation of the exhibition.

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