Sackler Gallery cancels controversial exhibit of Tang dynasty treasures from shipwreck
The Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery canceled the controversial exhibit “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds” after consulting with an international advisory committee.
In an unexpected move, the committee decided to seek permission from Indonesia to re-excavate the Belitung shipwreck, which has been submerged for more than 1,100 years, and eventually build an exhibition from those findings. The show had been scheduled to open at the Sackler in the spring.
The exhibition of materials from the shipwreck, considered one of the most important archeological discoveries of the late 20th century, sparked a heated debate among archaeologists and historians. Critics contend that a commercial company’s recovery of the priceless finds from the Tang dynasty had not met with best practices and high scientific standards.
“I leapt at the idea of a re-excavation. This is an opportunity to gain the information that was ignored or lost in the first recovery,” said Julian Raby, director of Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art.
In a meeting in Washington last week, the advisers agreed to try to organize a new excavation of the traditional Arab sailing vessel.
The ship was discovered off the coast of Indonesia with a cargo of 63,000 items. The discovery showed that there had been a maritime trade route between China and the Middle East in the ninth century.
The new plan, said Raby, would give any discoveries more scholarly context.
“We can begin to build a picture of its journey, where precisely it was made, how long did it function,” he said. “There will be so many stories we can’t begin to answer now. ”
The findings from the original exploration were shown at the Art Science Museum in Singapore and closed in October.
Because the ship is in Indonesian waters, the advisers must ask permission to bring the hull up.
“We need to know whether the Indonesian government would find this agreeable,” Raby said. “We need to raise money. And this is not the Smithsonian project alone. It needs to be cross-disciplinary and international.”