29 May 2020
The International Congress of Maritime Museums is both deeply concerned and disappointed to learn of the recent decision of a Virginia court – over-riding an international agreement newly ratified by the UK and US governments1 – to permit the invasive snatching of the radio equipment from out of the wreck of RMS Titanic and that the applicant even proposed its restoration to a functional state, in order that it can broadcast the distress call of the ship. This proposed salvage plan to ‘cherry pick’ one item does not appear to take adequate care of the surrounding fabric of this famous ship, or indeed of the marine environment in which it lies.
Moreover, the cultural value of the radio in question is widely considered not to merit the risk or damage inherent in the invasion of the hull. An almost identical Marconi radio was on display for many years in the Science Museum in London, UK, and the claim of new public benefit in this case is very wide of the mark. The story of the tragic loss of the Titanic is already thoroughly known and explored worldwide, and no new knowledge or experience will come about as a result of this salvage. Instead the benefit is restricted to firing up the public with a peep show based on a story of a terrible loss of life, and the gain is financial and not cultural.
Furthermore, restoring the artefact to a functional state will require the destruction and alteration of original fabric, which runs counter to the ethics of the conservation profession and to current museum practice. The conservation proposal is therefore a de facto destruction of the original object.
In September 2019, many of the world’s great maritime museums came together to sign the Åland Accord which governs the standards expected of maritime museums in caring for and bringing to life for the public our world maritime heritage. Acquiring or displaying material taken from historic underwater sites in an unethical manner is prohibited, and member museums are empowered to refuse to exhibit such objects. The court’s ruling runs counter not only to the recent US-British treaty and the Åland Accord, but also the principles outlined in the ethics code of ICOM and the UNESCO Convention on Submerged Cultural Heritage (and whilst the US is not a signatory to the UNESCO Convention, it is a widely-adopted international agreement).
The practices permitted by the Virginia court would certainly be illegal on land, so why do we still allow these historic underwater sites to be picked apart by treasure hunters in this way? The Titanic is the final resting place for the hundreds of lives cut short in the tragic sinking. The court should be mindful that “just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” Let the ship and her ghosts now slumber.
Dr Matthew Tanner MBE, LLD, MA, MPhil
President – International Congress of Maritime Museums
1 The Agreement Concerning the Shipwrecked Vessel RMS Titanic, which in turn is an outgrowth of a law passed in the US, the RMS Titanic Maritime Memorial Act of 1986.
Image: courtesy of National Maritime Museum (UK)