Edward Rodley, senior Exhibit Director at Boston's Museum of Science (MoS), has written an article titled "The Ethics of Exhibiting Salvaged Shipwrecks," published in October's issue of Curator: The Museum Journal. The article coincidentally appears as the MoS hosts a special exhibition sponsored by commercial maritime salvor Odyssey Marine Exploration called SHIPWRECK! Pirates & Treasure.
Curator magazine describes Rodley's article as follows:
"The contentious relationship between cultural heritage professionals and commercial entities is nowhere more fraught than in underwater archeological sites. More and more often, museums are drawn into this conflict through hosting traveling exhibitions. This article explores the ethical issues in two shipwreck exhibitions, Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds, and Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship, and the specific responses museums have made to address the ethical issues around commercial exploitation of cultural heritage. The article calls for museums to be more thoughtful and deliberate consumers, and embrace their potential as safe venues for exploring ethical dilemmas these sites embody."
Ed Rodley is a museum professional with a background in archaeology. I spoke with Rodley about why he wrote the article. He replied in an email excerpted below.
"Museum exhibitions are one of the main venues where the general public encounters archaeology, yet ethical issues get little to no acknowledgement or discussion in most exhibitions. In my experience, responses by the broader museum community to ethical issues tend to break down into either A) avoiding anything controversial, or B) pretending that there is no controversy by ignoring it. Both of these strategies deny the public the opportunity to explore these issues.
"I wanted to highlight the inadequacy of those responses and hopefully stimulate some discussion of other responses to controversy.
"I wrote the article to focus on museum responses to two underwater cultural heritage controversies; the Belitung wreck from Indonesia and the Whydah Galley. They are perfect examples of the dilemmas that face anyone working in cultural heritage. The different responses to these exhibitions are instructive for any museum thinking about hosting these kinds of exhibitions.
"Museums have the potential to be that ideal third space where people can engage with challenging ideas, and feel safe doing it. If the article encourages more conversation about ways museums can actually participate in the debate, then I'd consider it well worth the effort."
The article is worth a read. Those wishing to learn even more about underwater heritage issues may find last year's Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation conference of interest. The program may be viewed online here.