It’s been three months since my last post, approximately the length of time it takes for spring term at Bennington to chew one up and spit one out; luckily, I’m still alive and the illicit antiquities trade is still my life, so I’m back, at least for the time being! I hope the hiatus was only a one-time necessity; Bennington is the kind of school that demands not only your attention but basically your entire soul if you want to do well. However, the majority of my coursework for my last two undergraduate terms (EVER!) will be very connected to cultural heritage and the illicit antiquities trade, so after this summer I’m sure that I will still be able to post sporadically throughout the fall and spring.
The most exciting and applicable connection will be my senior project: I will be exploring the rift between museums and the archaeological community that has developed over the meaning of ancient artifacts, how artifacts come into the possession of museums, and how they are ultimately displayed. (!!!) To illustrate this rift and how damaging its consequences can be, I’m focusing on the current controversy at the Smithsonian Institution over the exhibition, “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds”, which will display the contents of the Belitung shipwreck. It is scheduled to be installed at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in spring 2012. Much of the scholarly community, including the Archaeological Institute of America, has denounced the Smithsonian’s decision to exhibit the collection, which was excavated unscientifically by a commercial treasure hunter off the coast of Indonesia. Technically, the excavation was legal and sanctioned by the country of Indonesia, which did not want the shipwreck to remain at risk for real looting. However, legality is not enough to persuade the archaeological community that the shipwreck artifacts can still express viable information and that this exhibition is actually an opportunity: I think this exhibition could be an amazing chance for the Smithsonian to address multiple sides of complicated ethical issues and highlight the threat to historical sites from looting, treasure hunting, and the construction of the developing world.
After two internships at the Smithsonian - both of which showed me only passionate, intelligent people who just want to do right by history and culture - I want to believe the institution as a whole will do right by this exhibition as well and use it as an opportunity to be the first institution in this country (that I know of) to consciously address issues of provenance. If that doesn’t end up being the case, I will be very disappointed. But, until we can know for sure next spring, all you haters might do better to realize opportunity when you see it, and encourage your colleagues at the Smithsonian to use this exhibition for good rather than evil.
(The following is a rant, the logic of which might be suffering from my already mushy summer brain) From what I understand, the position being suggested by some scholars (too mushy to get specific) is that museums should only ever display artifacts that have been scientifically excavated; so that when museums don’t discuss the role of provenance in their exhibitions, it’s ok for us to not think about it because we already know it’s legit? Like how Dunkin Donuts coffee is all Fair Trade but there isn’t a Fair Trade logo on the cups? Wouldn’t it be better (and less idealistic) to quit nitpicking about collections with known origins and instead make a bigger effort encourage institutions to just be up front with the source of all their products? Isn’t it more honest for the Smithsonian to exhibit a commercially salvaged shipwreck than for the Met to exhibit a donated collection with faked provenance documents? As a consumer of both history and coffee, I would appreciate not having to research the product to know there were no farmers or looters harmed in the process of it getting to me. Just tell me straight up on the packaging. In the same way I wish Dunkin Donuts would feature a Fair Trade logo somewhere on their coffee products so that other people know it’s Fair Trade, I wish museums would just do the honest thing and acknowledge that they don’t have any information about the object other than what the dealer or donator told them. In the case of the Smithsonian, we do know where the Belitung shipwreck came from and how it’s contents got here. We know why it is significant archaeologically, and while I know we all wish that there had been the time and money for professionals to do a long and thorough excavation, the reality is that the Indonesian government made a choice and what we have now is a remarkably intact collection with a known origin that can still convey a lot of information about the people and places that made it. I sincerely believe denouncing the Smithsonian for choosing this exhibition is doing more harm than it might if the archaeological community encouraged the Smithsonian to put the show on in an ethical and educational way. My sentiments are echoed in the New York Times article by James P. Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Rant concluded, don’t judge.)
Writing about the illicit antiquities trade as an undergraduate with no real experience in the field can frequently put one at a disadvantage, but it can also be a great place for perspective. I have been interested in these issues since I read Sharon Waxman's Loot not too long after it's release in 2008 and for a while, my sympathies lied solely with the archaeological side of the debate. However, after spending this past year immersing myself in the issues and officially incorporating the subject into my college concentration, I am now comfortably wedged in the middle, swaying between sides as necessary. I think the Belitung shipwreck (like every single artifact that has ever needed to be removed from the ground) should have been archaeologically excavated, if it needed to be excavated at all; however, I also think it is important to realize that ancient artifacts are not entirely devoid of meaning if they are excavated illegally. There is still information to be gleaned, and while it is certainly not the kind of information we could have gotten in an actual excavation, it’s all we have and we need to figure out how not to lose it over the bigger issues we’re battling with.