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Centennial of Titantic’s Sinking Begs Questions about Regulating Recovery of Underwater Relics

This Sunday, April 15, will mark the 100-year-anniversary of the tragic sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean to its resting place, 4,000m off the coast of Newfoundland. The centennial qualifies the underwater site for protection under the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The convention aims to prevent unscientific and unethical exploration, but only applies to vessels that sank more than a century ago. On the approaching milestone, Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, stated that it was important to protect the site where 1,500 people lost their lives. She added that thousands of other shipwrecks need to be protected from looters, and that “we do not tolerate the plundering of cultural sites on land, and the same should be true for our sunken heritage.” Bokova also commented that the sheer horror of the story of the ‘unsinkable’ ship has been “anchored in the memory of humanity.”

However, it is because the tragic tale of the Titanic has remained “anchored in the memory of humanity” that such an active market exists for its underwater treasures. The approaching centennial raises a question that has always been central to studying the past; how should recovery of historical relics be regulated? In recent years, this concern has become increasingly important in underwater archaeology, as techniques for removing objects from greater depths become increasingly sophisticated. Despite legislation that attempted to regulate removal of artifacts, including the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act passed by President Reagan in 1980s, thousands of objects have been taken from the Titanic and hundreds of expeditions to visit the wreck have taken place. In undersea archaeology, the age-old rule of “finders keepers” appears to govern often, especially when given the difficulties of policing underwater thefts.

Amid many events commemorating the Titanic anniversary, including the re-release of James Cameron’s “Titanic” in 3D, two responses in particular highlight the clash between legislators, archaeologists, and commercial explorers, who draw different ethical lines separating preservation of artifacts from plunder.

The first is a new exhibit “Titanic-12,450 Feet Below,” which will launch this week on Thursday, April 12, at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium. The exhibit aims to tell the story of the events leading up to the disaster and the eventual discovery of the ship’s remains. But, the exhibit will specifically not demonstrate any of recovered artifacts from the Titanic. An proponent of this mandate was Robert Ballard, one of the exhibit designers and former U.S. Navy officer who discovered the Titanic along with French oceanographer Jean-Louis Michel in 1985. Ballard, who has spent 52 years meticulously searching for and preserving underwater wreckages, explained that rather than focusing on the aftermath of the discovery, the exhibit celebrates “the art of the hunt,” which required years of painstaking research and undersea searches. Ballard is vehemently opposed to the glorification of explorers who extract and display artifacts for commercial purposes, rather than preserving and respecting the objects. Ballard stated that “the deep sea is the largest museum on our planet, but there’s no lock on its door.”

Contrast this exhibit with the large auction coordinated by Guernsey’s Auction House in New York City, which will put 5,000 artifacts from the ill-fated ship up for auction. Currently owned by R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., a division of Premier Exhibitions Inc, the lot will not sell individually but rather as one collection. Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey’s explained that the buyer must keep the pieces as one set and that the new owner must also agree to display a considerable portion of the artifacts for public access. This is in accordance with a clause in the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Act, which requires salvaged artifacts to further “cultural purposes.” Ettinger stated that he is aware of conflicting views regarding extracting artifacts, but believes that recovery of objects from Titanic has helped scientists and archaeologists learn more about the disaster. For example, a 17-ton bulk of the ship’s hull is part of the lot to be sold, which Ettinger says has given scientists the opportunity to learn more about the ship’s metallurgy and construction, which Ettinger says may be key to helping prevent future catastrophes.

It is hoped that UNESCO protection will curtail removal of artifacts from Titanic in the future. For now, as technology continues to evolve and interest in salvaged artifacts remains constant, underwater archaeology will continue grappling with these ethical concerns.