One of the oldest and most important marine archaeological finds of the late 20th century was unveiled to the public February 19, 2011, when the much-anticipated Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds exhibition opens in Singapore, at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands.
The exhibition is jointly organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Smithsonian), the Asian , ; the National Heritage Board (NHB), and the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
Shipwrecked relates the story of an astonishing cargo of some 60,000 objects carried from China by a ninth-century Arab dhow, presenting a dynamic tale of trade between China and West Asia along the maritime silk route. The cargo had lain undisturbed on the ocean floor for more than 1,000 years before its discovery near 's in 1998. Many surprises were yielded upon recovery, ranging from huge numbers of mass-produced ceramics to exceptional items, such as the earliest complete examples of Chinese blue-and-white dishes and intricate items of finely worked gold.
The exhibition features hundreds of highlights from this remarkable find, considered to be the largest quantity of Chinese trade goods and luxuries from Tang Dynasty ever discovered. Among the many dramatic objects on display is an extraordinary tall ewer measuring over a meter in height, with a dragon-head stopper. Exquisite gold and silver wares were also found on the shipwreck, including a gold octagonal cup decorated with figures of Central Asian musicians and a dancer. The cup is the largest and heaviest Chinese example of its kind, upstaging even pieces known to have been given by the Tang imperial family to the in the capital of . The rare and precious nature of the cup raises many intriguing questions about why the object was on board the ship and who might have owned it. The exhibition also illustrates the human stories of the ship's crew, whose few surviving belongings provide clues to their multi-ethnic identities.
“This milestone exhibition is a testament of how history and heritage can transcend boundaries and encourage greater cross-cultural understanding,” said Michael Koh, chief executive officer of NHB. “Our has been working closely with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and STB on developing the project’s themes, selecting artifacts, as well as designing and installing the exhibition. These collaborations have been most enriching and rewarding, resulting in the fruitful exchange of ideas and expertise.”
“This exhibition will change the way we visualize the contacts between East and West more than a millennium ago. It brings alive the tale of Sinbad sailing to make his fortune in the trade,” said Julian Raby, director of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Aw Kah Peng, chief executive of Singapore Tourism Board, emphasized the significance of premiering the exhibition in . “As a vibrant multi-dimensional tourist destination, we have always embraced our unique cosmopolitan diversity and heritage, as evident in the many ethnic festivals celebrated, the diverse cuisines enjoyed, and attractions such as museums and ethnic precincts. This collection thus has a special meaning for because it paints a different and deeper historical perspective of our island-nation and accentuates the link between the city-state that exists today and the rich historical narrative of the past.”
is the first stop in a world tour expected to extend for approximately five to six years. The exhibition will travel to major museums in Asia, the , Europe, the Middle East and . Plans for a permanent display in are in development.
The cargo, known as the "Tang Shipwreck Treasure: 's Maritime Collection", was purchased by Sentosa Leisure Group with the support of the estate of Tan Sri Khoo Teck Puat shortly after its discovery. It has never been publicly displayed on such a large scale.
“In addition to the marvelous artifacts which document the important East/West trade is the significance of the Maritime Silk Road and its critical role in cross cultural exchange”, observed Clay Maitland, who attended the opening and is a supporter of the exhibition. “It is in the interest of the maritime industry to support this effort to make the exhibit available around the world as it underscores the importance of shipping in today’s global society as well.”