via Indonesa at Melbourne, 21 August 2023: Piece by Natali Pearson, author of Belitung: Afterlives of a Shipwreck, on the 9th-century vessel discovered in Indonesian waters with a cargo of 70,000 objects including ceramics from China. The discivery sheds light on ancient maritime trade networks, but controversy surrounds its management and exhibition.
Equally important, however, are the lingering questions the Belitung shipwreck poses for Indonesia. How did a collection of this significance slip through its fingers? What are Indonesia’s rights and responsibilities when it comes to managing the thousands of shipwrecks in its waters? And why, in the world’s first (and arguably greatest) archipelagic state, has maritime heritage for so long been framed primarily in terms of its economic, rather than its historical or archaeological, value?
Indonesia is still grappling with these issues.
Rather than becoming more streamlined, the regulatory framework for shipwreck management has become more complex. The 2010 moratorium on commercial salvage was overturned in 2020 by the Job Creation Law – but uncertainty about the constitutionality of the Job Creation Law has created further ambiguity.
Within this legislatively complex environment, those tasked with shipwreck management – particularly in the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries – have an unenviable job.