The Smithsonian Postpones Dhow Exhibition

Bronze Coins from the Tang Dynasty, Brought up from the 9th Century Wreck

In a move which shouldn’t be all that surprising, the Smithsonian has decided to postpone the exhibition of artifacts recovered from a 9th century shipwreck which sunk off the coast of present-day Indonesia. The wreck offered new insights into the trade between China and the Middle East. The exhibition was scheduled to begin next spring, but now won’t be rescheduled until 2013 at the earliest.

Archaeologists criticized the exhibition arguing that the objects were recovered without adherence to professional archaeological standards. Fishermen were looting the wreck, and in response the Indonesian government hired a salvage company to bring the objects up from the depths, and did employ a marine archaeologist. The objects were brought up quickly, but in the eyes of some, these objects were little better than looted objects. Archaeologists like Kimberly Faulk who call the salvage of these objects ‘looting’ are stretching the term. Michael Flecker, an archaeologist who worked for the commercial salvage operation published his findings:

  1. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 29(2), 2000.
  2. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 37(2), 2008.

The open question though is what should happen to these 60,000 recovered objects. What about the next wreck fishermen are looting? These objects present a difficult dilemma. They weren’t taken in contravention of Indonesian law, these are legally-acquired objects. Indonesia may have done a poor job of protecting the underwater site, but in a world of finite resources, it seems to me being too critical of this exhibition sets a very high, nearly impossible to meet standard for exhibitions.

There may have been serious issues with the excavation undertaken by Seabed Excavations, the company hired by the Indonesian government to excavate the site. Yet, were those omissions sufficient to warrant this looting? Sufficent to preclude the display of these objects?This move may give the Smithsonian time to alleviate concerns of archaeologists, or more likely, may indicate a desire to avoid the entire controversy and cancel the exhibition without saying it outright.

Shipwreck Show Postponed –

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Looting Shipwrecks, Archaeology and the Smithsonian

Changsha bowls from the excavation

“To sell ceramics from a wreck like that makes them a hell of a lot more than selling sea cucumbers,”

So argues marine archaeologist Michael Flecker discussing the looting of perhaps the most significant shipwreck found in modern times. The wreck was discovered in 1998 by local fishermen while diving for sea cucumbers and was packed with some 60,000 glazed bowls, ewers and other ceramics. They were found in the wreck of an Arab dhow on its way from China to the Persian Gulf some 1,100 years ago. The Indonesian government did little to prevent the fishermen for taking objects from the cite and moved to hire Seabed Exploratiosn, a commercial salvage company to excavate the site, with the assistance of Flecker, who has published the excavation.

Archaeologists now are criticizing the exhibition of this material at the Smithsonian, claiming the commercial salvage amounts to looting. Kimberly Faulk of the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology says: “They were not excavated properly. They are indeed looted artifacts that were sold for profit,” which “sends a message that treasure hunting is OK.” That seems a very impractical stance to take. No one would argue that a concerted and extensive archaeological excavation would have been the best resolution here, or even if the Indonesian government had been able or willing to police the site of the wreck. yet short of those options, a removal of the objects with archaeologists yields some information right? What should be done with the objects now according to the archaeologists? What kinds of information might a longer extended excavation have recovered? I’d be interested in comparing the scientific results of this excavation with other more rigorous studies?

I mean, what should happen, should the 60,000 objects be returned to the ocean floor? Is there really no value in these objects without the context? If the advocates are using this for a chance to raise the profile of the problem of conservation and excavation of underwater archaeological sites, that seems a worthwhile endeavor, but doing so at the expense of common sense solutions seems to diminish their cause.

  1. Elizabeth Blair, From Beneath, A Smithsonian Shipwreck Controversy : NPR, (last visited May 6, 2011).
  2. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Volume 29(2), 2000.
  3. Flecker, Michael. “A 9th-Century Arab or Indian Shipwreck in Indonesian Waters: Addendum.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 37(2), 2008.
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Bob Mondello on "The Memory of Mankind"

NPR’s Bob Mondello has a highly recommended segment on museums as big businesses grappling with their conflicting roles in research and entertainment.  He notes that combined attendance at all major league sports events was about 140 million, while American museums will attract 850 million visitors. 

Peale’s collection and others were bought up in the 1840s by Phineas T. Barnum, who added some showmanship to the enterprise. In the pre-photography era, when a painting of the Grand Canyon could draw block-long lines. P.T. Barnum took the static curiosities in the collections he’d acquired and added “live” curiosities — industrious fleas, a hippo that he told audiences was “The Great Behemoth of the Scriptures” and assorted bearded ladies.

“The earliest museums really were, for lack of a better term, they were kind of freak shows,” historian Stephen Asma, author of Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, told NPR in 2002. “The bizarre was collected together with sober specimens with no real order or organization.”

Though Asma says curators didn’t have the “scientific agenda” that they do today, that agenda wasn’t being neglected. Around the time Barnum was turning his museums into carnivals, a somewhat startled U.S. Congress was dealing with an unexpected bequest from an Englishman named James Smithson. His will asked for the establishment of a Smithsonian Institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

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The GAO takes the Smithsonian to Task

Many have argued that a compelling case can be made that art and antiquities should be displayed in market nations in the developed world because they are better preserved there than they might be if returned to source nations which are often underdeveloped. The GAO report which James Grimaldi highlights in today’s Washington Post seriously undermines such arguments. It reveals a troubling picture of what should be America’s proudest cultural institution. Instead a picture of staggering institutional incompetence is revealed:

  • Alarms ring and guards are unable to respond;
  • A water leak in the Sackler Gallery could have destroyed artwork worth half a billion;
  • Fossils were stolen from display cases at the Natural History Museum;
  • Plastic sheets are required to protect Native American artifacts from damage;
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