Tang Shipwreck Exhibition at the Asia Society

Michael Flecker took this photograph of part of the wreck of the vessel in 1998.

The Asia Society has managed to avoid the scorn of underwater heritage preservers and exhibit objects from the Tang Shipwreck. Earlier attempts to display these objects by the Smithsonian in 2011 were cancelled because archaeologists argued the archaeological documentation of the wreck was insufficient and had been done with a primary aim of profit, not the advancement of knowledge.

The wreck was discovered in 1998 off the coast of Indonesia by sea cucumber divers. The vessel confirmed the sea routes between West Asia and Iraq or Iran. As the Asia Society’s director, Boon Hui Tan describes the exhibit:

[G]lobalisation is a very, very old concept—and it’s not just a Western concept . . . . There was a kind of economic dynamism [in the Tang Dynasty] that came from, in a sense, being connected with the outside world . . . . The Belitung shipwreck is one of the most significant archaeological finds in recent history . . .

The wreck held as many as 60,000 objects, including ceramic bowls; decorated mirrors; and valuable silver and gold objects. By all accounts this really was a chance find, fishermen were said to have been looting the wreck, so there was some urgency to recover the objects from the vessel while also undertaking research into the underwater archaeology. Whether that scientific undertaking was hastily done in order to secure financial rewards by putting together this kind of travelling exhibition, or the Indonesian authorities did the best they could with a limited budget is a question very much open to debate.  The exhibit titled “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia” will run through June 4, 2017.

  1. Robin Pogrebin, A Sunken Treasure Will Appear in New York Despite Its Controversial Excavation, The New York Times, Feb. 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/21/arts/shipwreck-treasure-new-york-display.html.
  2. Victoria Stapley-Brown, Controversial trove from imperial Chinese shipwreck lands in New York (Mar. 7, 2017), http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/controversial-trove-from-imperial-chinese-shipwreck-lands-in-new-york/.

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