Sunday, October 30, 2011

In Response

This past week, there has been a more than usual number of comments (the usual being zero) on a post in which I gave a brief update on the state of my senior work at Bennington. These comments expressed, shall I say, a strong interest in the direction of my research on the “Shipwrecked” controversy at the Smithsonian. Many of them were critical of points that I hadn’t even written about or expounded upon in my post. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother addressing such badly spelled confrontations, but Marcie, the only one in the debate to not hide behind the Anonymous title (thank you, Marcie!), asked me to step away from the debate over the Shipwrecked exhibition at the Smithsonian and continue to write about other cultural heritage issues. Because she signed herself as an avid follower (which made me excited), I feel compelled to address this directly.

First, I must warn you all that I am not going to back away from this exhibition and I am not going to cease writing about my research process on this blog. I am invested in the exploration of this controversy, and I am dedicated to recording my experience with cultural heritage issues on this blog. To my knowledge, no other young person is doing the same anywhere else on the internet. I believe it is vital for my generation to be shown what they can do to make cultural heritage studies and the illicit antiquities trade the main focus of their education. Until someone else does it better (or until I get too busy), I will continue trying to fill that gap. Second, I realize that I have not been 100% transparent about my goals and approaches to studying this controversy, and in studying cultural heritage issues in general. I definitely take responsibility for any confusion my lack of clarity may have generated, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear some things up.
I don’t believe that standing outside institutions that do things I disagree with and yelling at them until they stop is the only method of generating change. When it comes to challenging museums on their bad behavior, this tactic has failed miserably. I do believe that actively calling out institutions on their transgressions is necessary, but I also believe that change must occur from within, whether that’s within an individual person or within an institution. I want to study this controversy from within the Smithsonian for three reasons:
  1. I think we all become so angry about these issues because, at the heart of it, we love museums and we feel betrayed when they act unethically. I love the Smithsonian: I grew up near D.C., went to the museums as a kid, and did two internships with them in my second year of college. I am invested in this controversy because I have an academic interest in the issues, a personal relationship with the institution, and a dedication to making this institution better and the issues far more transparent. I expressed my appreciation for Dr. Raby’s openness to working with me because I don’t think the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the St. Louis Art Museum would be as open to the kind of request I put forth to Dr. Raby. The Smithsonian does indeed have some black marks in its record, but I would argue that these marks aren’t nearly so big or so hidden as any in the Met’s, the Getty’s, or the Boston MFA’s record. The fact that Dr. Raby is open to re-designing this exhibition to address the ethics involved and has been transparent about this process in the press and to lowly undergrads shows me that this exhibition could be the start of something much bigger, both at the Smithsonian and in the museums overall. Yes, I will be asking about the provenance of all objects, not just those in the Belitung shipwreck. Yes, I will be straightforward about my concern for how the Smithsonian approaches all of its ancient artifacts, not just the ones in this exhibition. But I will do so in a way that I hope will generate more forthrightness and willingness to oblige than if I were to be as aggressive as some of the commenters implied I should be.
  2. I believe in changing systems from the inside out. If the few individuals in my generation who care about these issues don’t bring their passion, expertise, and hard work into the system (as opposed pelting it from the outside), nothing will never change. There is a trend in cultural heritage activism of many people distancing themselves from institutions that act unethically instead of taking an active role in changing them. Somehow, we think that our yelling from the outside will create a result from within. Often, that result is just more mystery, less transparency, and heightened tensions. I would like to do my research on the Smithsonian controversy from within the Smithsonian because I am trying to make an internal impact on the system that might allow for more effective changes in the future.
  3. In terms of the concerns over the ethicality of the Smithsonian’s decision to put on this exhibition, I would like to challenge not just what my commenters said but what we think in general so far about the ethics of exhibiting “unscientifically excavated” materials. I am not trying to protect or justify the actions of the Smithsonian just because I love the institution. If I see truly bad behavior surrounding this exhibition, I will not be afraid to call attention to it. However, I think that we need to combine what we already know (we don’t know what to do with all these “orphaned” objects + no museum has ever done an exhibition and been explicit about the origins of looted/unscientifically excavated objects) with what we know we need (honest and transparency from our museums + more attention given to provenance issues) and try to figure out if this exhibition has the potential to address these issues effectively. The ethics of cultural property are not yet set in stone. If they were, I probably wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. It is very important to remember that we are dealing with modern issues and that the conversations we’re having here, in our blogs, in our classrooms, and in our academic work is about developing and fine-tuning our answers to these problems.
The issue within this conversation that I think is most important to address is the argument over the Smithsonian breaking contracts in order to put on this exhibition, particularly the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. In fact, the Smithsonian has not broken this contract because the United States has not yet signed it. Have they broken contracts with AAM? Maybe. But I think that in this case and in similar cases, we should not be asking black and white questions about laws that have been constructed with a specific, unyielding, and sometimes ineffective solution in mind. I have only been willing to consider this controversy at the Smithsonian because two archaeologists were a part of the excavation, and because excavating sites in less affluent countries (such as Indonesia) calls for a different kind of archaeology that policies such as the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage disallows. Michael Flecker, one of the archaeologists who excavated the Belitung shipwreck, has an article on the ethics of maritime archaeology in Southeast Asia. He writes,
The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention for the protection of underwater cultural heritage aims primarily to exclude commercial salvage operators from working on historic wreck-sites. The underlying reason for this is that, regardless of how well they may document the site and regardless of efforts made to put aside representative samples for museum display, commercial salvors must inevitably sell at least part of the cargo to cover their costs and, if they are fortunate, to make a profit. The cargo is therefore dispersed and is no longer available, in its entirety, for scholarly study. This is a perfectionist policy for shipwrecks full of unique artefacts lost in the waters of developed countries that are willing to commit public funds to carry out archaeological excavations, inclusive of the time-consuming and costly tasks of conservation and long-term storage of large numbers of artefacts, documentation, dissemination, and display.
I’m not saying that I want commercial salvage companies to be the overall solution to problems of excavation in Southest Asia, but that we need to be more open to different solutions to this problem. Dr. Flecker’s assertion is supported by the recent flood of articles on the looting of shipwrecks in Southest Asia. The truth is that no matter how many well-meaning conventions are created, they will do very little to help the situation if we are not more flexible and aggressive about solving these problems in a way that addresses the root of the issue.
For this reason, I think “Shipwrecked” has the potential to be a real game changer. If done the right way, it could revolutionize how museums approach ancient artifacts, how museum-goers see ancient artifacts, and how we all react to the destruction of the physical manifestations of our world’s history.


  1. Have a look at this report from the BBC: here.

  2. ... and at the report of Mr. Sudaryadi here:

    The Belitung shipwreck site after commercial salvage in 1998 (Paper Abstract)

    The Belitung Shipwreck Site, located at 17 m depth in Belitung waters, Indonesia, is a shipwreck site containing Tang Cargo Treasure that was lifted by private salvage companies, PT. Sulung Segara Jaya and Seabed Exploration Company in 1998. The salvaging process is done without involving Indonesian archaeologist. The ship is an Arab dhow with 15.5 m long that includes 60,000 pieces artifacts from Tang Dynasty period. At present these artifacts are under the management of Singapore Sentosa Leisure Group.

    In 2010, the Office for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Jambi conducted the first underwater archaeological survey at the Belitung Shipwreck site in order to find out the recent conditions of the site after salvaging in 1998. The result shows that the site is extremely ravaged, where unidentified ceramic fragments spread out in a radius of ± 20 m². It seems clear that the ceramics fragments have been removed by the company then thrown back into the sea because they were considered non-commercial. Meanwhile, the shipwreck was not found anymore. It was only a big form hole with 6 m wide and 15 m long, which seems to be the ship place. The remaining wrecks are now just a few small wood fragments and a sizable chunk of wood sitting, seems as a mast foundation. Because of the Belitung Shipwreck is recognized worldwide as an extremely valuable find in Indonesian waters, the conservation efforts are needed to remind future generations that the shipwreck site is very important for underwater archaeology in Indonesia. Some conservation efforts that can be done are legal protection, site rehabilitation, and establishing a maritime museum in Belitung Regency. The last has been initiated 2 years ago with the aim to preserve artifacts from Belitung Shipwreck site and other underwater sites in Bangka Belitung Province

    Mr Agus Sudaryadi
    Coordinator for Underwater Archaeology
    Office for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Jambi
    Ministry of Culture and Tourism

    Thank you, Jon.

    PS: Apologies for the bad spelling...