I was on holiday when the Smithsonian announced that it would not be hosting the Belitung Shipwreck exhibition last month. Much inked has been spilled, particularly by commentators in Singapore decrying the decision. Here’s a roundup and my take.

Changsha Wares from the Belitung Shipwreck

Changsha Wares from the Belitung Shipwreck

A quick backgrounder: The Belitung Wreck was an Arab-style ship laden with valuable cargo from China that sunk in Indonesian waters the 10th century. It was salvaged by a commercial operation, and its contents were bought in its entirety by a Singaporean group for US$32 million. The exhibition of the ‘Tang Treasures’ cargo first debuted last year at the ArtScience Museum and as early as July 2010 it was announced that the exhibition would travel to the Smithsonian. However, concerns over the provenance of the artifacts – that it was obtained through a commercial operation and not a scientific one – raised issues of whether it was ethical or appropriate for the institution to be exhibiting such artifacts. The planned exhibition was first rescheduled, pending a hearing of issues by the board members, before it was finally decided last month that the Smithsonian would not host the exhibition after all.

According to the statement issued by the Smithsonian on 14 Dec 2011:

The group recommended that Smithsonian take a leading role in bringing together interested organizations and countries to advance understanding of underwater cultural heritage through exhibitions (virtual and traveling), educational programs, professional training and symposia.

The key component of this recommendation is a re-excavation of the Belitung shipwreck site, following international best practices.

The exhibition shown at the ArtScience Museum in Singapore earlier this year will not be brought to the Sackler.

This recommendation will be considered by museum and Smithsonian officials as part of the Institution’s ongoing exhibition review process.

Criticism from Singapore has been generally of dismay, but also of anger because of the perceived hypocrisy of the Smithsonian. As one commentator on the blog puts it:

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!

Andy Ho, a commentator for Singapore’s national newspaper The Straits Times was particularly critical of the role (underwater) archaeologists had in the rejection of the exhibition in an editorial on 23 December 2011:

Underwater archaeology holds doctrinally that salvage is fundamentally at odds with preservation and is ethically wrong. It maintains that UCH must never be commercialised, ideals reflected in the convention its community largely shaped.

But this approach is blind to how most countries cannot afford to constantly police an ocean site to prevent looting. It ignores the problem of decay in water, the technical difficulties of working at depth, and the prohibitively high costs of the underwater technology required.

Other real-world considerations and pressures also apply. Derek Heng (Straits Times, 03 Jan 2012) writes:

Archaeological sites in Asia have continually witnessed human activities over long periods of the past into the present. This also pertains to the shallow waters of maritime South-east Asia, where fishermen continue their centuries-old practice of harvesting these waters and the seabed for economic products.

Once archaeological sites are discovered, excavations conducted in such areas need to be speedy for historical information not to be progressively lost forever.

The accessibility of the Belitung wreck site necessitates the consideration of a second important point – that the wreck’s cargo is valuable to both the scholarly community, often regarded as the custodians of historical knowledge on behalf of the public, and the art-collecting world.

Not that the Smithsonian’s proposed re-excavation of the Belitung Shipwreck would actually add anything new to our knowledge. In an article in the Straits Times dated 28 December 2011, Akshita Nanda quotes Michael Flecker, the archaeologist who was involved with the original salvage:

In comparison, what would a new expedition unearth from the Belitung wreck?

Not much, according to maritime archaeologist Michael Flecker, 49, who was brought in by German salvage firm Seabed Explorations in 1999 to supervise the second half of the cargo’s recovery.

Calling the re-excavation idea a ‘farce’, he said he brought up most of the salvageable artefacts, and any portion of the ship left uncovered then was already in far too fragile a state to withstand salvaging.

He also said that the academics who propose the re-excavation are most likely unaware of the challenges involved in mounting an expedition in Indonesia.

Apart from the red tape, archaeologists have to be mindful of local fishermen who sneak on-site and pillage wrecks to find artefacts to sell in local markets. Even 12 years ago, the site was raided so regularly that his team had to work very fast to ensure the cargo was salvaged in its entirety.

It’s an imperfect world. We have a cargo that was salvaged in not-entirely the best of circumstances, but they are pretty spectacular and significant indeed. K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (and by extension, the Archaeology Unit in Singapore) notes is his editorial in the Straits Times written last week that we should make a distinction between the recovery of the shipwreck and its subsequent display:

The methods by which some data from the archaeological site were collected were not perfect, but the consensus of the majority of scholars who have examined the materials first-hand is that reliable conclusions can be drawn from them.

A sharp distinction should be drawn between the controversies over professional ethics and the right of the public to have direct access to these artefacts and expert interpretation of them.

In any case, it is high time that the people of Singapore are able to view the Belitung cargo in its entirety.

My analogy would be shark’s fin soup. I won’t order it or serve it myself, but if I’m at a wedding dinner and that’s what gets served to me because it’s a cultural norm, I won’t waste the food. So, display the artefacts. The damage has already been done, and like most archaeological processes it’s irreversible. Learn from the ethical shortcomings of this example, hey even make it part of the exhibition narrative. But show the artefacts to the world because they are pretty marvellous. And then tell your friends to not serve shark’s fin soup at their weddings.

Besides the issue of whether it is ethical to display artefacts that were salvaged as part of a commercial operation instead of a scientific one, another ethical issue had been largely sidestepped: should Singapore even have been buying the collections in the first place?Blogger 23princessroad points out the lack of concerns raised from within Singapore at the point of purchase, perhaps partly because Singapore does nothing to prevent (or maybe even tacitly approves?) the sale and looting of antiquities:

Has anyone in Singapore made any noise about ethical concerns yet? I don’t think so. We are too concerned with philandering starlets and broken trains to even bother with archaeological ethics…

On a related matter, Singapore is not a signatory to any anti-looting conventions/treaties with the United Nation, and we are also proudly one of the major transit points in the global trade in illicit artefacts. Of course the Sentosa Group that owns the artefacts will not get any pressure from the government for buying/owning this controversial cargo, much less having local academics/curators/lawyers protesting its display in Singapore.

I know that a few prominent Singaporeans (doctors, CEOs, and even some very senior public servants) are avid collectors of Ankor sculptures, Buddhist/Hindu statues etc, and most of them are happy to buy artefacts of unclear provenance and proudly display them at home for the eyes of the privileged few. And who’s there to stop them, since no local law has been broken??

I personally feel uncomfortable about the idea of Singapore purchasing (with some public funds) the cargo from a commercial salvage. What if we were to switch the cargo with some other similarly rare commodity, such as elephant tusks? The idea of state-sponsored purchase of elephant tusks (or tiger skins, or rhinoceros horn…) would spark a great outcry, even if the elephant was already dying or dead. At the very least, a high-profile sale like this would certainly drive the demand for more antiques.

1. A lot of the editorials quoted here are located behind paywalls, hence the lack of links to them. The editorial are cited are:

  • Andy Ho, 23 December 2011. Academe’s exhibition of parochialism. The Straits Times.
  • Akshita Nanda, 28 December 2011. Salvaging a wrecked opportunity. The Straits Times.
  • Derek Heng, 03 January 2012. Acquisition of shipwreck treasures by Singapore a boon for the world. The Straits Times.
  • K. Kesavapany, 13 January 2012. Vital to spread knowledge about South-east Asia’s past. The Straits Times.

2. For some reason, I had the impression that the Belitung Shipwreck artefacts would be housed in the Maritime Xperiential Museum in Sentosa, where the Jewel of Muscat now rests. But for some reason it is not. Does anybody know why?
3. Oh! The Tang Treasures will now be exhibited in the Asian Civilisations Museum until mid-year. Interestingly enough, the organisers of the exhibition are listed as Asian Civilisations Museum and the Singapore Tourism Board.

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4 Replies to “Shipwrecks and Shark's Fin Soup”

  1. Very interesting post, Noel, thanks for making this wonderful compilation of comments! 

  2. This is a great post and this is a really complicated topic (but a great one to use for debate in an intro archaeology class).  The Smithsonian said that the excavation “failed to meet crucial scientific standards,” which to me sounds like a nice way of them saying that the site was basically looted. I would be curious to know more about the excavation process.  Do you know if any research publications or reports on the excavation have been published? Another important point is that the Smithsonian is more than just a museum, but a research institute and so their ethical and professional standards can and should be much more strict.

  3. Dr. Flecker has four articles on the Belitung – two you can download of the Maritime Explorations Website.  http://www.maritime-explorations.com/belitung.htm It is also published in “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” Eds. R. Khral, J. Guy, JK Wilson, J Raby. It is a very beautiful coffee table book.

    The archaeological investigation of the wreck unfortunately leaves a lot of questions – time was a factor. The public outreach following excavation has been well done; this important aspect is often neglected during academic excavations.

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