Titanic or the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic is the British luxury passenger liner that sank on April 14, 1912, during its maiden voyage en route New York City from Southampton, England. The tragedy of Titanic has killed a total of 1,500 passengers and ship personnel.
It is one of the most famous tragedies in the past century that inspired many stories, films, and a musical. Moreover, the ship has been the subject of many scholarship and scientific speculation since it sunk.
Recently, a federal judge for the Virginia Eastern district in the United States had ruled that RMS Titanic Inc., which owns the right to salvage the shipwreck, can retrieve the Marconi radio, which was last used to make distress calls from the north Atlantic when the ship struck an iceberg.
Recovery for Profit Endangers Underwater Cultural Heritage
The new ruling reverses the previous one from July 28, 2000, that prevents damage to the ship in line with existing agreements.
This recovery for profit directly opposes the ethics of modern archaeological practice. Additionally, it raises questions about legal protection for shipwrecks and how countries value their shared cultural heritage.
This will not be the first time that items are retrieved from Titanic. Despite the international recognition of its historical and cultural importance through legislation, numerous artifacts have been recovered from the shipwreck since 1987.
The artifacts were allowed to be publicly exhibited but subsequently refused to sell in 2001 by a court ruling. Further planned auctions were later postponed.
However, the recent ruling allowing invasive salvage of the radio is different from the previous ones because the ship is now more than 100 years since it sank. The RMS Titanic has fallen under the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage since April 15, 2012.
This protects the shipwreck by not allowing any commercial exploitation of heritage. The US and the UK honor its principles via legislation though both countries are not signatories to the convention.
What do you think about this?
Titanic salvage: recovering the ship's radio could signal a disaster for underwater cultural heritage https://t.co/dOOMAZFE3B — Marina Amaral (@marinamaral2) June 9, 2020
The US 2017 Consolidated Appropriations Act specifically bans "any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic unless authorized."
This agreement between the US, the UK, Canada, and France recognizes the ship's international significance. It serves as a memorial to the 1,514 people who died in the tragedy.
Controversial Justification of the Radio's Removal
The US government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), advised that the recent court ruling did not meet the criteria for salvaging the radio from the shipwreck.
Its justification for removal that it is made for the public interest and possible degradation of the radio in the coming years are valid points. However, the estimated rate of degradation is controversial since the depth at which the ship is located is relatively stable. It seems that the damage to the ship is mostly due to salvage activities since its discovery.
From an archaeological perspective, retrieving the radio will cause further damage to the memorial site, which will only give limited gain concerning scientific and cultural knowledge. So, the motivation for recovering the radio appears to lie in its economic potential as a tourist attraction and possible sale.
Salvaging the radio should be under thorough consideration in light of its impact on the shared global heritage since it can no longer be undone once it takes place.