Asia Society Museum Presents 'Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia'

Belitung shipwreck artifacts

NEW YORK, December 9, 2016 — Asia Society Museum in New York presents a selection of 76 artifacts from a thousand-year-old shipwreck discovered in 1998 in Southeast Asian waters. On view for the first time in the United States, the objects are evidence of the robust exchange of goods, ideas, and culture between far-flung kingdoms in Asia during the ninth century. Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia is on view from March 7 through June 4, 2017.

"The contents of the Belitung shipwreck testify to the scale and sophistication of contact between ancient Islamic and Buddhist peoples more than a thousand years ago. Secrets of the Sea presents some of the most important archeological revelations of the twentieth century,” said Boon Hui Tan, Asia Society Vice President for Global Arts & Cultural Programs and Director of Asia Society Museum. “By shining a light on the rich cultural and commercial links among Asia’s disparate ancient empires hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans to the region, this exhibition challenges widely held Eurocentric conceptions of globalization, migration, and trade in the region. It is proof that globalization is a very old concept in Asia.”

Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia features precious cargo—bound for the Abbasid Caliphate, an empire that included present-day Iran and Iraq, and produced in China during the Tang dynasty (618–907)—including ceramics, gold and silver vessels, bronze mirrors, and other artifacts. Discovered in 1998 off of Belitung Island, Indonesia, the ship’s contents were miraculously protected from erosion and breakage by tight and ingenious packing as well as the conditions of the silty floor of the Java Sea. Until the discovery of this ship, it was believed that the Tang traded primarily through Central Asian land routes, mainly on the Silk Road. The discovery of the ship’s cargo confirmed the significant maritime trade route. Most of the works in the exhibition have never traveled outside Asia.

Highlights in the exhibition include a magnificent ewer and other glazed stoneware objects with copper green splashes over white slip, which were highly desirable in the Middle East, also known as West Asia, from the largest cache of this type of ware recorded to date. A Chinese blue-and-white stoneware dish, with a lozenge motif that was common in West Asia, is one of three from the shipwreck. Created around 830, they are some of the earliest known complete examples of Chinese blue-and-white ceramics. The cobalt-blue pigments used, imported from the Abbasid Caliphate, had previously been found only in that part of the world and had not yet appeared in China. The exhibition also boasts rare and imperial-quality silver boxes and gold vessels, which are thought to have been used in trade negotiations and as diplomatic gifts.

"The artifacts exhibited will expose American audiences to the rich narratives of the two great trading powers of the ninth century—Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate—and highlight ancient Asia’s early advances into industrial production for the export market,” noted Kennie Ting, Director of the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

Exhibition organization

The exhibition begins with an exploration of the shipwreck’s 1998 discovery—by fishermen in shallow waters—that includes color photography of the wreck and documentary video footage. The show goes on to consider the rise of early global trade in Chinese goods, particularly blue-and-white ceramics, and advances in mass production, as well as the appetite in Southeast Asia and West Asia for luxury exports from China.

Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia is jointly organized by Asia Society and the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. Objects are from the Khoo Teck Puat Gallery, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. The Tang Shipwreck Collection was made possible by the generous donation of the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat in honor of the late Khoo Teck Puat. A richly-illustrated book by the Asian Civilisations Museum accompanies the exhibition, and includes scholarly essays on the background and historical context of the Belitung and other shipwrecks in Southeast Asia, China’s maritime exports in the late Tang period, and the role of Arab traders along the Spice Route during the late first millennium. The curator of the New York exhibition is Adriana Proser, John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art at Asia Society.

Related programs

A number of related programs have been organized to coincide with Secrets of the Sea, including:

  • The Exhibition Symposium, “Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia,” co-organized by Asia Society and the Tang Center for Early China at Columbia University, will be held on April 22 in The World Room at Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall. The keynote presentation will take place on April 21 at Asia Society. The symposium represents the first academic gathering in the United States to present a comprehensive review of the cargo of the Belitung shipwreck and the maritime trade routes of the ninth century with a view to broadening the understanding of the profound cultural significance of the find. Noted participating scholars include: Regina Krahl, keynote speaker; Dr. Bryan Averbuch, CUNY; Dr. Dora Ching, P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art at Princeton University; Dr. John Guy, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Dr. Derek Heng, Northern Arizona University and the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Center, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Singapore); Dr. François Louis, Bard Graduate Center; Dr. Victor Mair, University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Adriana Proser, Asia Society Museum, New York; and Dr. Liu Yang, The Minneapolis Institute of Art.
  • A Members Lecture, “Connecting Empires: Shipwrecks, Ceramics, and Maritime Trade in Ninth-Century Asia,” will be held on March 7 with Stephen Murphy, curator at the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore.
  • A special Family Day will bring the discovery and cargo of the shipwreck to Asia Society’s youngest visitors.

Exhibition support

Secrets of the Sea: A Tang Shipwreck and Early Trade in Asia is made possible by the generous support of Oscar Tang and Agnes Hsu-Tang, Ph.D. Major support for this exhibition is provided by the Mary Griggs Burke Fund; the Singapore Tourism Board; the National Heritage Board, Singapore; and Lisina M. Hoch.

Additional support is provided by ICBC (Industrial & Commercial Bank of China).

Support for Asia Society Museum is provided by the Asia Society Global Council on Asian Arts and Culture, Asia Society Friends of Asian Arts, Arthur Ross Foundation, Sheryl and Charles R. Kaye Endowment for Contemporary Art Exhibitions, Hazen Polsky Foundation, Mary Livingston Griggs and Mary Griggs Burke Foundation, and New York State Council on the Arts.

About the Asian Civilisations Museum

Located by the historic Singapore River, the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) is devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of Asia, especially the ancestral cultures of Singaporeans. These include China, Southeast Asia, India, and the Islamic world. More recently, the museum has focused on the long historical connections between cultures. As one of the National Museums of Singapore under the National Heritage Board, the Asian Civilisations Museum seeks to promote a better appreciation of the rich history that has created Singapore’s multi-ethnic society. For more information, visit www.acm.org.sg.

About Asia Society Museum

Asia Society Museum presents a wide range of traditional, modern, and contemporary exhibitions of Asian and Asian American art, taking new approaches to familiar masterpieces and introducing under-recognized arts and artists. The Asia Society Museum Collection comprises a traditional art collection that includes the initial bequests of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, and a contemporary art collection. Through exhibitions and public programs, Asia Society provides a forum for the issues and viewpoints reflected in both traditional and contemporary Asian art, and in Asia today.

Founded in 1956, Asia Society is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational institution headquartered in New York with state-of-the-art cultural centers and gallery spaces in Hong Kong and Houston, and offices in Los Angeles, Manila, Mumbai, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, Washington, D.C., and Zurich.

Asia Society Museum is located at 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), New York City. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. Closed on Mondays and major holidays. General admission is $12, seniors $10, students $7; and free for members and persons under 16. Free admission Friday evenings, from 6:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M. The Museum is closed Fridays after 6:00 P.M. in July and August.