Because of protests by archeologists and anthropologists, The Smithsonian Institution is considering canceling its upcoming exhibit “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds,” Chinese artifacts recovered from an Arab ship sunk in the ninth century.
Why Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler museum directors thought for one minute that it was ethical to exhibit artifacts — rare and lovely though they may be — that were salvaged without regard to science is a mystery to me. An article in the New York Times notes that the salvage company that mined the goodies from the bottom of the sea was paid $32 million for the artifacts by the Singapore government. The excavators’ goal was not to study this historic find, which is evidence of Chinese sea trade with the Middle East, but to make some big bucks.
Same reason Arkansas museums shouldn’t exhibit Indian artifacts dug up without regard to the information they hold in situ. Archeologists learn from artifacts by examining their context, recording them in situ. If you’re digging up an artifact and walking away, what you’ve got is art, yes; a money-maker, maybe; but museums should shun you for what you’ve cost history.