Museum Cancels Pirate Exhibit Over Slavery Issues

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For the second time in 10 years, Tampa's science museum has canceled an exhibit after objections from black residents. The current controversy revolves around whether artifacts should be displayed from a pirate ship that sunk off the Florida coast. Many objected because the ship was also used to transport slaves.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

America has a new fascination with pirates, spurred in part by Disney's “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. It would seem the perfect time for an exhibition of artifacts from the only authenticated pirate ship found in U.S. waters. But as museum officials in Tampa found out, pirates can still stir up hard feelings.

NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: In many ways, Tampa would seem the perfect setting for an exhibition on pirates. The city has long celebrated its connection with legendary Spanish pirate Jose Gaspar in an annual festival. And then, of course, there's its NFL team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Officials at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry were excited at the prospect that their institution would host perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition on pirates ever mounted. It would be built around the story of the Whydah, a pirate ship that went down in a storm off Cape Cod in 1717.

It was discovered 24 years ago by Barry Clifford. Clifford says accounts from the time report that when it wrecked, the Whydah had treasure and cargo on board from 54 plundered ships, and he's recovered much of it.

Mr. BARRY CLIFFORD (Archaeologist): We have over 400 pieces of Akan African jewelry. We have thousands and thousands of coins dating from Ferdinand and Isabella right up to 1716. We have over 50 cannons that we've recovered and all the personal belongings, wax seals that pirates used with cryptic symbols on them. It's really an unprecedented look into this secretive outlaw subculture.

ALLEN: But in announcing the exhibit, museum officials hadn't counted on two things. Tampa's previous experience with the proposed pirate museum and objections from people like James Ransom(ph).

Mr. JAMES RANSOM: All I could think off was a cavernous wound was going to be opened because of that, of what I heard.

ALLEN: Ransom says there's an even more important part of the Whydah history. Before it was captured by pirate Captain Black Sam Bellamy, the Whydah had been used to carry slaves from Africa to the New World. Ransom was concerned the exhibit would trivialize the issue of slavery, and he had questions about the museum's plans to tie the exhibit to upcoming release of Disney's new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. He and others began meeting, making phone calls, and generally making it clear that they would do everything in their power to stop the pirate exhibit from coming to Tampa.

Mr. RANSOM: This Whydah is not about pirates. It's about slavery. It's about the slave trade as a part of the trade to the New World, and it was about making money selling human beings. And so you cannot allow someone to exploit that story and try to make it a pirate story because they want to romanticize and glorify pirates using slavery to get there.

ALLEN: Within a month after announcing plans for the exhibit, the museum abruptly did an about-face, canceling those plans and issuing a written apology.

If it seems like there's more to the story, there is. In 1993, Tampa went through a very similar exercise when plans were unveiled for privately run pirate museum also built around the artifacts from the Whydah. Tied up with that dispute was an ongoing effort to open up to more African-American participation the annual Pirate Festival in Tampa and the social club that run it.

Black leaders successfully opposed that museum, and that ended plans in Tampa for using the Whydah in a pirate display, until last month. The new Whydah exhibit was being proposed by Arts and Exhibitions International, a company that has designed and mounted other highly successful shows, including King Tut and Princess Diana exhibits. Arts and Exhibitions' President John Norman says an important part of the Whydah story is what it tells us about African-American pirates.

Some of the pirates onboard the Whydah when it went down, he notes, were slaves freed when the ship was captured by Black Sam Bellamy and his crew.

Mr. JOHN NORMAN (President, Arts and Exhibitions International): Every man on that pirate ship was free and had an equal vote and so on. I thought it was actually a great story that everybody would love to hear about. We're not inventing anything here. We're not romanticizing anything here. This is history.

ALLEN: Norman and explorer Barry Clifford remain confident that using artifacts from the Whydah they'll find institutions in other cities interested in what they hope will be a blockbuster exhibit on the golden age of pirates. But African-American activists in Tampa say they plan on taking their opposition to the national stage. They're preparing a resolution they hope to introduce next summer at the national meeting of the NAACP.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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