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Of wrecks, museums, and islands - an interview with Dr. Ruud Stelten

n the occasion of the PhD defense of, now, Dr. Cameron Gill, Dr. Ruud Stelten, came back to Leiden where he did his Bachelor and Master and defended his own PhD. During his time in Leiden, not only did he present during the symposium organised for Dr. Gill, he was also kind enough to find the time to do an interview with RMa student Anika Hellemons about his work in the Caribbean, setting up a museum, and how to enthuse the community and young archaeologists.

Dr. Ruud Stelten (photo courtesy: https://theshipwrecksurvey.com/).

Name: Dr. Ruud Stelten

Nationality: Dutch

Occupation: (Maritime) archaeologist

PhD: From Golden Rock to historic gem: A historical archaeological analysis of the maritime cultural landscape of St. Eustatius. Dutch Caribbean. Leiden University, 2019.

Ancillary activities: Former island archaeologist of St. Eustatius; Board member of SECAR; Founder of Terramar Museum on Bonaire; Owner of The Shipwreck Survey.




I was particularly interested in the shipwreck you were talking about in your presentation. You mentioned that it is a spot for recreational divers, but that there also is looting. What are the options to ensure that some artefacts are left for the enjoyment of the divers, but also in such a way that they cannot be stolen. Are there methods for that or is that a gamble?

It is often a bit of a gamble because a recreational diver who swims past an artefact can take it, even though they are not allowed to touch it. The diving schools do pay attention to this, but they cannot constantly watch six or eight divers at the same time throughout the whole dive. This is difficult to prevent underwater. On land it can be prevented, as artefacts are not allowed to leave the islands. That is why checks at the airport and port are important, but then again it is hard to monitor as we are talking about small sherds in big trunks full of junk. So I think it sometimes happens that something is taken. Bigger artefacts are of course harder to take, but that occasionally happens too. Sometimes I dive somewhere and see a beautiful glass bottle that is not there anymore the next dive. Then you can guess what happened, especially if the sea has been calm. However, there are measurements we can take, like creating an underwater museum with concrete cages. This is actually the idea of a ranger in the marine park, but it is not very feasible in practical terms.

What we, the archaeologists, do is the following: there are hundreds to thousands of artefacts on a  site and we take a few up. We have created a flow chart for selecting them: the first thing we always ask ourselves is whether we can get historical information from the object. If the answer is yes, we ask ourselves "is there a lot of underwater life living in it?" Is there a lot of coral on the object? Or is there a fish living in the bottle? If this is the case,  we can choose not to take the object. If it is not the case, we still ask ourselves if we can preserve the object, do we have the means to do this? For most objects the answer is yes, but for a cannon, for example, the answer is no. We just don't have the resources for that. So then we don't do it either. On the other hand, it may also be that an artefact provides little or no information about the site, but that we still recover it. We sometimes do this if an object is very fragile, or if it is very beautiful and there is a good chance that it will be looted as a result. In that case it is still better to document and take it with us to prevent it from getting stolen. And this is difficult, because I prefer to just leave it. I have no use in managing twenty bottles, that makes no sense at all. But it is even worse if it is immediately gone or broken. That is kind of how we work to prevent looting and ensure divers enjoyment.

I do not know if I heard it correctly, but you mentioned that the ship might actually be excavated? Or will it remain in situ?

Oh that is actually very funny, because I was talking about it with Martijn [dr. Manders] last week during a workshop in Curaçao. And I had just shown him what we had done over the past two years to which he said it would be a good next step to excavate a couple of test trenches next summer. In order to see if we can determine the exact size of the site, but also to see if there is anything below this find such as parts of the hull or other wooden objects. That would be the next step, but we are going to talk about that first. If it happens it will be later this year or sometime next year. We have now documented everything that is visible on the surface, so what we want to do this summer is to do soundings to see how thick the sediment is all over the site. Based on this, we can then determine where there is a good chance of finding a good intact archaeological layer. Because if the sediment is not thick enough then it makes no sense to put a unit there, but if there is a lot of sediment we can maybe even go for an airlift. We therefore have to do this first, and then we can make a better estimate of where we are going to excavate. It is not even certain, but Martijn was very interested in it and I certainly am too, so I think we will excavate in the foreseeable future.

That is also a great way to show that there is a very rich history surrounding the islands. Besides being a maritime archaeologist, you were also the island archaeologist of St. Eustatius?

Yes I did that for two years, in 2011 to 2013 and then I moved to Bonaire. However, if I have to point at one place that is my home base, it would be Statia. We now have another colleague there, Fred van Keulen, who is now the island archaeologist. I am currently also on the SECAR [St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research] board, the archaeological foundation. Additionally I sometimes do archaeological work for the foundation. I set up the Shipwreck Survey to do maritime research and train students, but I sometimes hire SECAR with my company too. This seems like a very strange situation, but it works just fine. A bit of conflict of interest maybe. Also, enough is happening on the island. There are also some commercial projects coming up so I think I will be on the island again a lot.

You also cooperated with creating, or actually created, the Terramar museum on Bonaire. How did that happen?

That's actually quite a story. When I first went to Bonaire, I found that there was no museum on archaeological finds at all. Being a bit of a dreamer, I felt I had to change that. When I suggested opening up a museum, only one of my colleagues did not think it was completely crazy and wanted to cooperate. I wanted the museum to tell a story, not just be a random collection of artifacts. What's more, instead of it being just about Bonaire - which is a pretty big trend on surrounding islands- I wanted it to be about all of the Caribbean islands: their history and connection with each other. Furthermore, it would be a journey through time. Seven thousand years of Caribbean history. From the earliest indigenous inhabitants to the Second World War.

While the idea is nice, it only gets you so far. We still needed a collection, a location and someone crazy enough to invest money. Fortunately, the latter proved much easier than expected as there was an abandoned historic building that a group of investors received from the government on loan. The building still needed a function and the investors were at their wit's end. When I proposed the idea they loved it. When time came to get into action, I realised I had only very little experience setting up exhibitions. First we contacted "Northern Light", a company based in Amsterdam and they started the design. Then the company "Bruns" from Brabant built it in the Netherlands. When I came to inspect it, I greenlit it and the exhibition was shipped to Bonaire where “Bruns” joined us with setting up. I learned a lot from the experience. In the end, the museum was finally opened in August 2016.

That went rather quickly.

The plan was to open even sooner, at the end of 2015, but everything in the Caribbean often goes a bit slower than planned. That is mainly due to the fact that building materials, for example, were not present. As for the collection, we got it from different islands, mainly Curaçao and St. Eustatius, and even from the Florida Natural History Museum in Gainesville. Additionally, we borrowed artefacts from Bonaireans themselves. For us it was very important that the artefacts tell the story and that is how we selected them.

The museum really tells a story of interaction. When walking into a room a portrait will start talking to you. For example we have an Indigenous woman tell about her life and travels to new islands; Columbus about his journey; and a slave about working in the salt pans. We also had a very large timeline and in the middle of the room we had a kind of large bath where, with the help of projection and moving images, in four minutes you get an idea of ​​how people moved through the Caribbean over the years. We archaeologists wanted to tell a huge story, of course, but "Northern Lights" rightfully showed us that placing a plaque with 1000 words on it would not be very attractive. We had to find a balance in that.

During the first year, I fulfilled a sort of directory role, and we organised fun events such as 'nights at the museum' with workshops and lectures. We also had a lot of school children which we gave tours and interactive assignments. Getting children interested is actually a challenge in itself, since they have a different worldview and a museum might prove boring. Additionally we even had some famous visitors. The grandson of Jacques Couseau, Fabian, came by, as did Alexander Pechtold and Rik Felderhof. We also did some archaeological research from the museum which we also presented there. However, after a year, I stopped and someone else took over. The first year it was nice to be there, making sure everything is perfect, but after it runs on its own you don’t need an archaeologist. But now I heard recently that the museum board is thinking about closing it, which is a shame.

Do you also know why?

I have heard some things left and right that the museum is not earning enough money. That probably  really is what it comes down to. Even though we had made it clear in advance, it's a museum, it won't be a big money maker. We are a small museum with 230 square meters, but because it is pretty well set up, you can walk around for an hour or more . It is true that we are very close to the cruise piers, but very few people who come from those ships are interested in the history of the island. That's a bit of a shame. But nonetheless, we had more than 6,000 visitors in the first year. That's not bad for an island like Bonaire. The idea was that it would increase, but it has remained at the same level, maybe decreased a bit even. It is also not that the museum cannot support itself, but it is just that investors who have put money in it and want to earn it back. I think that's the main reason.

I find it very unfortunate that it might close, I was already excited to go there too. Was it also a problem that the local people are no longer coming because they have already been once, or do they keep coming?

Yes a bit, we have had many local people over the years. However, if you've seen it once, then maybe you go again a few years later and then no more. That is why it is important that you regularly have temporary exhibitions. We have reserved one room for that, so that can also attract people. Certainly with workshops and lectures you also get people who repeatedly come. But the problem is the average local population is not that rich. For the tourists we have an entrance fee of ten euros and we cannot ask that of the Antillean population. That is not so bad, because it is important that we get them over, because it is their heritage, but more tourists would be good. I also thought it was good that we had so many children. Because if they come into contact at an early age with the rich heritage that is theirs, you hope it will linger a bit and that they will still find it important later, when they call the shots on the island.

It is also good to let them get acquainted with their rich history early on, because often people do not know how long ago the first inhabitants were on the islands. It is often thought that it starts with the Spaniards, or Dutch, or other European settlers who arrived, and that there was not that much before. That is something to make clear, because it is a very abstract idea of ​​time. For example, it is a crazy idea to think that something is 500 years old, let alone 1000 or even older. That is hard to comprehend.

That is also one of the things we see on the island, there are tourists walking with T-shirts with a print saying: ‘Bonaire, established 1499’. That is something we wanted to address, the myths about the origins of the island. So for example that Bonaire was not established in 1499, but was already inhabited around 1600 before Christ. But also the idea that the Indigenous population who lived here were primitive. That was also very evident in the tour. The early inhabitants came here to a new environment, an uninhabited island where there was nothing at all. What do you think will happen if you put us on a desert island? We know nothing at all and within a week we would all be dead. But those people would survive. So who are the primitive peoples then?

We had more of those myths that were visible that we wanted to address in the museum. For example the idea that during the 16th century all Indigenous peoples were killed or succumbed to diseases. That is of course not true at all. You still see a lot of Indigenous blood in the Caribbean population, but also a lot of Indigenous customs that are still being used. We even see them here in the Netherlands, for example smoking tobacco. We actually wanted to show that to the visitors, how our contemporary existence is still influenced by the interactions between Europeans and Indigenous peoples.

Another question about the Shipwreck Survey. You set that up yourself too. How did you come up with that idea? Did you just want to put maritime archaeology on 1 again?

This started in 2014, when we had an underwater field school at Statia. This was the first one we did. This field school, set up by Martijn with the RCE [Department of Culture in the Netherlands] and with financial support from UNESCO was aimed at capacity building in the Caribbean. However, we also got a lot of requests from students to do underwater archaeology. This together with the hurricane that exposed the archaeological remains on the sea bed and me finishing my PhD for which I also did a lot of underwater archaeology made a perfect combination. That is why I set up my own organization that only focuses on doing maritime archaeological research and instructing students therein

What we do is teach them everything about underwater archaeology. From the beginning to the end. We do ten dives on the site, with a specific purpose. For example, we will document a certain part or the site, take measurements and photos and we will preserve a number of artefacts. Then we will present the findings to a broad audience. We can rent the boat from the participation fee and have equipment for the students. We are doing this twice a year and it is extremely popular. The field school for next summer is already full. And there are more interested students, but we have to transfer them to January next year.  Also, we don't just do archaeology. In July I am planning an educational wreck dive trip, no archaeology but a week of diving around 19th century and World War II wrecks, to learn about them and give presentations about the history of the wrecks, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

What I am mostly concerned with in the Shipwreck Survey is that Maritime heritage is not clearly visible. Few people can dive, so most people cannot see a beautiful wreck. But you still have to be able to make people enthusiastic about it so that they become aware of it, but also so that they make a strong case for management. For example, what you see about maritime archaeology and heritage is either a shaky GoPro video of a minute and a half or 45-minute documentary. We have to find a middle way. What we are trying to do is make our heritage attractive to the general public. And that starts with making content such as beautiful videos and photos and the experience of the students. If they show that they enjoy the fieldwork, the stigma of diving being for old people might change. We have also published a number of articles in the diving magazine, about Statia, Salt Cay and Egypt. It is not scientific, but you do reach people.

I really want to say thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and have this interview. I enjoyed it a lot and it was very inspiring to hear what is possible when you set your mind to it and really go for it.

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