Worries Mount Over Smithsonian Shipwreck Exhibit

Smithsonian Institution officials are still debating whether to proceed with a controversial exhibit of shipwrecked artifacts as critics level a new charge that legal matters dogging the corporate owner of a museum now premiering the exhibit could make the Smithsonian's involvement improper. On Monday, a blue-ribbon panel of archaeologists, art historians, and Smithsonian officials met privately in Washington, D.C., to hash out the ethics and discuss the underlying science of the proposed exhibit, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, originally slated for 2012. At the meeting, one archaeologist noted that the company that owns the Singapore museum where the exhibit was premiered is currently under investigation for alleged criminal activities. But others say that the Singapore museum has little to do with the exhibit itself. The Smithsonian has already designed the exhibit and co-published the catalogue, and is expected to decide whether to display the artifacts by late May.

The exhibit is based on thousands of silver, gold, and ceramic artifacts salvaged from a ship that sank off the Indonesian coast in the 9th century C.E. The salvage company, a privately-held German corporation, sold the artifacts to a second firm owned by the Singapore government for a reported $32 million. Critics charge that the company failed to meet professional excavation standards and then commercialized cultural heritage by selling the artifacts, going against the ethical guidelines set by many archaeological organizations. Four of these organizations now oppose the exhibit and are asking for the Smithsonian to scuttle it. "This wasn't about archaeology," says Joe Watkins, chair of the ethics committee at the Society for American Archaeology. "It was about some pretty material that was derived under some unprofessional standards."

At the meeting, a Smithsonian archaeologist raised a different question about the exhibit: It was premiered at the ArtScience Museum, which is owned by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., a company that builds and operates casino-based resorts. In 2010, the Las Vegas-based company opened a major resort in Singapore, featuring a casino that The Economist magazine has called "perhaps the most profitable in the world." The resort contains several other attractions, including the ArtScience Museum.

By studying public reports, Paul Johnston, the curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, discovered that both the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the United States are currently investigating Las Vegas Sands for alleged breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits American firms from bribing foreign officials. (See the SEC filing dated 1 March). Some archaeologists are raising questions about the propriety of the Smithsonian Institution's relationship with the ArtScience Museum. "Is that museum a serious one?" asks archaeologist Stephen Lubkemann of the George Washington Universityin Washington, D.C., who attended the meeting. "Or are we talking about something that we'd see in a sort of Las Vegas sideshow?"

But Julian Raby, director of the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, which is set to display the exhibit, says such concerns badly miss the mark. The Smithsonian's contracts were with the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Heritage Board, which decided to place the exhibit in the new ArtScience Museum, he says. Raby notes that staff members from the Smithsonian "designed everything, [but there were] no contractual or any other dealings with ASM, other than obviously they had to let us in."

Proponents of the exhibition say, moreover, that the ship was being targeted by local looters. The German firm that salvaged the artifacts had a license from the Indonesian government to do so, and kept the most of objects together as a collection, all legally.

Raby expects that a final decision on the exhibit will be made in May, after an internal Smithsonian review is completed and the board of directors for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery weighs in.