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MOSI plan renews slave ship debate

By JUSTIN GEORGE, BILL VARIAN, and JANET ZINK
Published November 2, 2006


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TAMPA - Fourteen years ago, a $70-million project to build a museum to exhibit artifacts from a pirate ship that once carried slaves exposed a deep racial fissure locally that has not been forgotten.

Members of Gasparilla Krewe in pirate regalia joined business and political leaders for a festive announcement of plans for the Whydah museum, but things quickly went awry.

Black leaders questioned the appropriateness of making a former slave ship a pirate attraction. After weeks of roiling, often angry debate, the would-be developers of the Whydah museum withdrew.

But the idea is back, with the Museum of Science and Industry considering a plan to exhibit the ship's relics along with other pirate artifacts, and some once again say they worry the display will obscure or trivialize slave history in a city where a quarter of the residents are black.

"You can't romanticize and glorify slavery and the Middle Passage," said James Ransom, a member of the Coalition of African American Organizations, which fought the first plans. "It would open up a cavernous wound we don't need to open."

But MOSI's leader said he has learned from the past.

"It's a great opportunity to do something right versus the last time," said MOSI president Wit Ostrenko. "We fully intend to listen to the African-American community and see that it's treated in a way they'd like to have it treated."

Buccaneer theme

As before, it's the ship's pirate history that is being emphasized.

The theme of the exhibition would focus on the "Golden age of pirates," between the 1600s and 1821, and its opening would coincide with Disney's summer release of the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But, Ostrenko said, the six-month exhibition wouldn't glorify pirates but be a revealing, sober look into their history.

Arts and Exhibitions International, the Aurora, Ohio, company that created the King Tut exhibit, is negotiating with MOSI to debut the exhibition.

Sponsored by National Geographic, it would open in Tampa, known for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the annual Gasparilla pirate festival, before traveling around the country.

It could include scores of artifacts, such as a cabin boy's shoe, ship's bell, navigational and medical instruments, tableware, cannons and cannonballs from the Whydah, whose parts are being salvaged off the coast of Cape Cod, where it sank in 1717 laden with loot plundered by Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy and his pirates.

But the ship's origins as a slave ship have made Ostrenko tread carefully. On Oct. 18, having read news accounts of the first failed attempt, Ostrenko convened a group of black community members and the MOSI board to talk.

"I told him I wouldn't move if it ... doesn't have their involvement and participation," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Tom Scott.

Ostrenko said people in the meeting told him not to glorify either slavery or piracy. Slavery shouldn't be ignored, but stated as part of the ship's history in a factual manner. But, he said, it's too large a topic to cover in-depth in a pirate exhibition.

"They were clear: State the fact and move on," he said.

But Joyce Russell, African-American liaison for Hillsborough County, said there was no consensus.

Michelle Patty, who opposed the 1992 plan, said she viewed the meeting as a MOSI fact-finding mission to see what went wrong the first time.

"Now it sounds like things have taken a life of its own," said Patty, who said she is not opposed to creating the exhibition, but wants to be part of more meetings to gain consensus.

Why try again?

Some people at the meeting questioned whether a pirate exhibit has any place at a science museum and whether it was wise to bring back the controversy, said Sam Wright, a University of South Florida associate dean, who attended.

Curtis Stokes, president-elect of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP, said he told Ostrenko privately that the exhibit was a bad idea, even with black community advice.

"They had buy-in the last time and it got pretty ugly," Stokes said. "The NAACP, we can't support that."

Former Mayor Sandy Freedman was in office during the first Whydah controversy, and she said there are lessons Ostrenko could learn.

Members of the black community were consulted during the first attempt, but when criticism began those who supported the proposal "vanished," she said.

"They just became silent when things got heated," she said.

Ostrenko needs to hold several public meetings and go into detail about his plans, she said.

Ostrenko said he plans to hold more meetings, and said he might assemble a committee to review each piece of the exhibition's plan. He said he will heavily promote MOSI programs that expose black youth to science, technology, engineering and math - something black leaders requested.

He said he welcomes vigorous discussion of the exhibit, something he is familiar with after last year's controversy over "BODIES: The Exhibition," which featured human cadavers.

"It made us very sensitive to issues and to realize that MOSI is not a vanilla organization," he said. "We try to hit tough topics and bring them to light and let the public debate and argue about them."

He said he plans to recommend that the MOSI board pursue the pirate exhibition, and like Ostrenko, the exhibitor feels confident.

"We're considering and exploring all our options," said Arts and Exhibitions International president John Norman, whose company also puts on a Princess Diana exhibit. "But I feel real comfortable after our meeting that Tampa will enjoy and embrace this exhibition."

The 'Whydah'

Named for the West African port of Ouidah, the slave ship launched from London in 1715 as part of the the "triangular trade." Cloth, liquor, hand tools and small arms from England were traded for as many as 700 slaves in West Africa, who were exchanged for gold, silver and sugar in the Caribbean. On its second voyage in February 1717, pirates led by Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy hijacked the ship. In April, the treasure-laden Whydah slammed into a sandbar off Cape Cod and broke apart.

Source: National Geographic

[Last modified November 2, 2006, 01:13:03]


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