To Exhibit or Not to Exhibit?: Establishing a Middle Ground for Commercially Exploited Underwater Cultural Heritage Under the 2001 UNESCO Convention

Laura Gongaware | Comment

Although cultural heritage located on land receives extensive legal protection in almost every country in the world, cultural heritage located underwater, known as underwater cultural heritage, receives little, if any, protection. For underwater archaeologists, this difference in protection is perplexing because historic shipwrecks, a subcategory of underwater cultural heritage, are unique time capsules. Whereas most land-based archaeological sites are composed of several settlements built one on top of the other, each historic shipwreck is representative of one moment in history and provides a unique glimpse into ancient maritime trade and transportation. Historic shipwrecks are also representative of maritime trade and transportation. Therefore, one shipwreck can tell archaeologists more about cross-cultural interactions than several land sites put together. As a result, historic shipwrecks are invaluable underwater cultural resources that deserve to be protected and studied carefully. Unfortunately, many historic shipwrecks sank carrying monetarily valuable cargo and are, therefore, highly sought after by treasure salvors looking to exploit these wrecks commercially. In their search for monetarily valuable cargo, treasure salvors often destroy the nonmonetarily valuable aspects of a historic ship, thus destroying each artifact’s provenience.

The commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage is banned under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001 (2001 UNESCO Convention). This ban also prohibits the exhibition of underwater cultural heritage that has been commercially exploited in a state that is party to the 2001 UNESCO Convention. The scope of this ban is problematic because commercial exploitation is not defined in the Convention and determining what constitutes commercial exploitation has been more difficult in practice than the drafters of the Convention seem to have anticipated. The prohibition on the exhibition of commercially exploited underwater cultural heritage can bar academics from studying these valuable resources and prevent the public from enjoying them. For example, state parties to the Convention are currently debating how to apply the Convention’s rules to the Belitung shipwreck, a ninth-century Arabian dhow that sank off the coast of Indonesia and provides information about an otherwise unknown maritime component to the land-based Silk Road. Is the best way to accomplish the goals of the Convention to ban the display of the Belitung collection, or can commercially exploited underwater cultural heritage be displayed in a way that educates the public about the dangers of commercial exploitation and allows for commercially exploited underwater cultural heritage to be utilized to its maximum potential?