Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The "Shipwrecked" controversy sails in a totally different direction and also I told you so.

On December 8 and 9th, an advisory committee assembled by the Smithsonian met to discuss whether or not the exhibition "Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds" would be shown at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery. By lunch on the first day, it was decided that the exhibition won't go up. Instead, the Smithsonian jumped on the idea of re-excavating the Belitung shipwreck and creating an exhibition from those findings.


I don't think anyone who has been following this controversy could be any more surprised. Or, in my case, stupid with delight. Since I first started reading about it in April, I saw this case as a real tipping point in how museums approach unscientifically excavated and unprovenanced artifacts. I was supportive of the Sackler putting on the exhibition if it meant that it would educate the public on the ethics behind archaeology vs. commercial salvaging vs. looting and the complicated relationships between all three in Southeast Asia. But regardless of what side you're on, I don't think anyone ever considered this kind of alternative. I'm hoping aggressively that everyone's surprise at the resolution to this complicated and messy debate has highlighted just how stubbornly unyielding and uncreative we've all been about which way this thing, and all things like it, should go. We have ALL been so busy figuring out if we should go right or left that we never stopped to consider that we could go back

Now, without going right or left at all, this unexpected move is even more of a game changer than I anticipated. Not to get all this-I-what-I-learned-this-term, but this kind of situation is what mediators call "filling a vacuum".
To sum it up: in mediation, intractable conflicts are seen as complex systems made up of the same local, regional, and global relationships that make up complex systems like flocks of birds or Occupy Wall Street. Complex systems, like Courtney Love and everything else, live on the edge of chaos, are self-organizing (no director determining exactly how the system moves), and are constantly seeking to achieve and maintain homeostasis. The problem with intractable conflicts as complex systems is that achieving homeostasis is seemingly impossible because different parts of the system are pulling in opposite directions with their differing needs. This is when finding a vacuum, a neglected or unseen area, and filling it provides everyone with an opportunity to fulfill differing needs and achieve a win-win outcome. 

Which is exactly what the Smithsonian and the advisory committee just successfully did and what the rest of us are trying to do. Sort of. Having acquired some student/blogging chops in the past year, I've noticed that a lot of people in this area are more into pointing fingers than finding solutions. For example, the haters that hated on the "Shipwrecked" case and asked me to step away from it entirely had already written it off and decided it was too hopeless to think about. Instead of thinking, "Hm. I wonder how I personally could make this case different from all the others. What is it about this case that makes it special, and how can I get in touch with someone at the institution to talk about it?", they had simply decided they were above it somehow and it wasn't worth the time or effort. I get that it's exasperating. We know this is a problem. We know that people are stubborn, materialistic, and that it's frigging hard for all sides to talk civilly and productively about provenance, looting, ownership, and heritage. But maybe instead of sticking so aggressively to one gun or another, we should be attempting to find the vacuums in these issues that are preventing us from being more kum ba ya about cultural property. I challenge you, in a good way, to reframe your perspective.

Congratulations to the Smithsonian advisory committee and to Julian Raby, the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, on coming to such a productive solution after such a complicated process! You can click here to read the official press release from the Sackler Gallery on "Shipwrecked". 

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