Sackler Gallery Convenes Advisory Group to Discuss "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" Exhibition

A press release from the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution about the Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds exhibition which they were supposed to host next year, but put on hold because of outcries from some archaeologists and cultural heritage experts over the issues of exhibiting artefacts taken from a commercial salvage operation (See here). The exhibition was on display this year at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore, and is now in storage.

Sackler Gallery Convenes Advisory Group to Discuss “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” Exhibition
Media Release from the Sackler Gallery, 08 December 2011

The Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery will convene an international advisory committee Dec. 8-9 for discussions on issues surrounding the proposed exhibition “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds.” The meetings, part of the Smithsonian’s internal review process, are not open to the public or media.

Participants will include experts from professional organizations such as UNESCO, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the International Committee on Monuments and Sites, the World Archaeological Congress Committee on Ethics, the Philippines National Museum and others.

“Shipwrecked” tells the story of one of the most significant archaeological finds of the late 20th century–the Belitung shipwreck. The ship had lain undisturbed off the coast of Indonesia for more than 1,100 years. Its cargo of more than 63,000 items, including Chinese ceramics, bronze mirrors, spice-filled jars and vessels of silver and gold was discovered in the late nineties.

When the ship was recognized as an ancient dhow, a traditional Arab sailing vessel, scholars realized that this was the first intact proof of a maritime trade route between China and Iraq.

The discovery of the shipwreck changed the world’s knowledge about trade between China and the Middle East, confirming the existence of a maritime trade route between the two superpowers of the 9th century–Tang China and Abbasid Iraq. The size of the cargo shows that China was a manufacturing giant more than a millennium ago.

Since the exhibition was announced in 2010, a number of archaeology and cultural heritage organizations, including individuals within the Smithsonian, have objected to the display of the Belitung cargo, arguing that commercial involvement in shipwreck recoveries can compromise scientific standards of excavation and lead to exploitation of shipwreck sites. Others support the exhibition, contending that public-private partnerships can help prevent loss and dispersal through looting and commercial fishing. Supporters argue that such partnerships are especially valuable in regions like Southeast Asia where underwater cultural heritage needs are great but funds and expertise are scarce.

The exhibition, originally scheduled for the Sackler Gallery in spring 2012, was put on hold last summer. Since that time, Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, has consulted with professional archaeologists and cultural heritage experts across the globe regarding the issues raised by the Belitung shipwreck.

The advisory committee will discuss topics related to underwater cultural heritage standards and practices and explore whether the exhibition could, with modification, contribute to public education and dialogue on the importance of preserving and protecting underwater cultural heritage discoveries.

When news of the exhibition and controversy was posted last spring on the Smithsonian Facebook page, the public response ran strongly in favor of the exhibition. “Shipwrecked” was well received by the press and public at the Art Science Museum in Singapore, where it was on view from February to October 2011.

The exhibition is now in storage in Singapore. No decision has been made about its showing at the Sackler Gallery. For more information on the exhibition, visit http://asia.si.edu/exhibitions/SW-CulturalHeritage.asp.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

1 thought on “Sackler Gallery Convenes Advisory Group to Discuss "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" Exhibition”

  1. What humbug! You mean it is OK to exhibit stolen artefacts, but not those acquired commercially? If the big name museums in the West were to return their largely stolen artefacts – including but not limited to the Elgin Marbles (Greece) and animal figurines from the Summer Palace (China), there will be precious little to show!

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