Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Update on the "Shipwrecked" controversy/I can't believe I get to talk to these people.

"Shipwrecked" on display in Singapore
Today it's been a week since I arrived in Washington, D.C. to research the "Shipwrecked" debate for my senior work at Bennington. Just a week, and I have already exchanged emails with some of the giants in this field to set up meeting times, met a Smithsonian museum director, and eaten the finest processed meat at two amazing burger/chili joints for under $7 each (Ben's Chili Bowl and the Shake Shack in Dupont Circle, the latter of which also serves beer and wine, what!)

Less than 24 hours after I got off the train, I met with Julian Raby, the director of the Freer/Sackler Galleries, to kick off my field research. Not only was he incredibly welcoming and supportive of my mission, but demonstrated that he is all about engaging younger generations and getting creative about the problem-solving that needs to be done in the museum/archaeology/cultural heritage field. In our meeting, he openly admitted to mistakes and problem areas he needed to focus on more carefully throughout the process of navigating "Shipwrecked", and emphasized that the re-excavation of the Belitung is not just about excavation; it's about engagement. He has high hopes that re-excavation efforts will bring together the two academic domains of art history and archaeology, that it will create training opportunities for younger generations in archaeology/museum studies/preservation in southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, and that it will incite UNESCO to strengthen their conventions by turning them into discernible action. Which really reflects the hopes that I voiced for it when I heard the news of the surprise outcome. At the moment, all these good intentions are in their embryonic stages as the Smithsonian has internal meetings on the subject and separate foundations are contacted for funding. However, here's why I'm feeling really good about the outcome of this debate and the effect it will have on this field in the future:

While discussing the purpose of the "Shipwrecked" exhibition and the message it ideally would convey, Dr. Raby said something so simple that sums up what I think we would like to see more of in general, particularly in art museums: in exhibiting artifacts that have not been archaeologically excavated, he wants to show, "Look at what we didn't learn."

The change that needs to happen within art museums and how they approach their collections with questionable provenance is twofold: first, there needs to be a widespread effort to acknowledge that much of the time, provenance is not known. Within this first point, a) museums shouldn't be directly buying looted objects, but sometimes the donations that are made to museums are and it needs to be acknowledged, and b) we can't keep pretending that the era did not exist when buying looted artifacts or objects not excavated with our modern archaeology was accepted and ubiquitous. I think we are all mature enough to have it said out loud. Second, the exhibitions, publications, and art history textbooks that feature these objects should acknowledge the biography of the objects themselves and have the courage/decency to point out what it is we didn't learn from the object because of how it was acquired in addition to what we did learn. The fact that a Smithsonian museum director is attempting to create the kernel of this change himself is incredibly encouraging. Emphasizing the losses that are inherent in looting and commercial salvaging are not necessarily a reflection of whether or not the institution or publication is "good" or "bad"; it is simply taking responsibility for the truth and imbuing younger generations with a sense of immediacy for the extreme risks and cultural casualties in these issues.

Academics are already talking about the nitty gritty unpleasantness in conflicts like this. My greatest hope for this controversy is that it will get all us little people down here talking about it too. There are a lot of hard questions in this debate over what is lost through unscientific excavation, how unscientifically excavated objects should be approached, and who has the responsibility to take care of them. Regardless of what happens with the Belitung and "Shipwrecked", it is important for all of us to realize that being aggressive on the internet and hating museum directors from far away is not our only option. Had all my very outspoken readers with a grudge against Dr. Raby done more research and maybe even tried to contact Dr. Raby directly, they may have learned that his perspective is not quite as ominous as they thought. These are complex issues, and it's generally unfair to approach them like they're black and white.

This week I am very excited (read: star struck) to be speaking with Richard Hodges, the director of the Penn Museum), George Bass, one of THE pioneers of maritime archaeology and the first archaeologist to excavate an ancient wreck in its entirety, and James Delgado, the director of NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program. Here's hoping my star struck babbling is considered endearing.

1 comment:

  1. Meg, I'm really enjoying reading your blog! Next time you are down in Boston, drop me an email. I'd love to grab coffee and hear about your research.

    One addition to your Grad program guide: Cambridge's MPhil in Archaeological Heritage and Museums (

    All the best!