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MOSI drops plans to display artifacts from slave ship

After weeks of controversy, the Museum of Science and Industry has announced it will back off plans to use artifacts from a former slave ship in a pirate exhibit.

At least for now.

"At this time, MOSI will not host the world premiere of the pirate exhibition featuring the Whydah ," MOSI president Wit Ostrenko said in a prepared statement. "Given the fact that this exhibition is still in the conceptual phase, we feel there is insufficient time to effectively review how the sensitive history of this particular exhibition will be treated."

Ostrenko made his decision public late Sunday in a news release, a day after some prominent black residents widely circulated an e-mail that called the exhibit disrespectful to African-Americans and said MOSI should immediately cancel plans to bring it to Tampa.

Local black leaders, including the Tampa-Hillsborough NAACP, applauded Ostrenko on Monday for hearing them out and pledged to use the opportunity to forge a better relationship.

But another official involved with the exhibit said timing might have ultimately been the factor that caused Ostrenko to concede.

"I told him we weren't able to have the exhibit ready. That's why he sent that out," said Arts and Exhibitions International president John Norman, whose company was preparing the Whydah exhibit in conjunction with National Geographic.

Norman said that having the Whydah (pronounced WID-ah) exhibit ready to debut in Tampa in May as he and Ostrenko had discussed was "unachievable." He said he received a report Friday that estimated it would take six to nine months for Whydah artifacts to be prepared.

Ostrenko spent Monday out of town at a Florida Association of Museums board meeting and could not be reached for comment, said MOSI spokeswoman Tanya Vomacka.

The Whydah was a slave ship that sank in 1717 off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. It had been overtaken by pirates just days before. For two years, the ship carried slaves and other cargo during the Middle Passage and Triangular Trade eras, when kidnapped Africans were sold into slavery in the New World.

Opponents of the MOSI exhibit have said it focused too much on the piracy and not enough on slavery. The exhibit would have opened in time to coincide with Disney's summer release of the third of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

"Considering that we haven't even designed the exhibit, I'm surprised that we have criticism," Norman said.

When he met with black residents in Tampa in October to discuss plans for his Aurora, Ohio, company's exhibit, Norman said he "thought we had very productive conversations on how to include appropriate academics."

Norman added that no one involved in planning the exhibit has talked with Disney about collaborating on the project.

"We had no association with Disney and weren't planning on having any association with Disney or their movie," he said.

Sam Horton, president of the Tampa-Hillsborough NAACP, said a pirate ship exhibit using the Whydah will never sit well with black residents in Tampa.

"We as a community don't need a festering sore to enter our community," Horton said. "Not as a pirate ship. That's never going to fly."

The difference between the Whydah and the recent controversial Bodies, the Exhibition, Horton said, was that the display of dissected human cadavers - while shocking - was science.

"It might have abhorred certain people, but it's science and industry," Horton said of Bodies, which Ostrenko rushed to open ahead of schedule in August 2005 in the face of protests by the state anatomical board.

Tampa resident and sometime activist James Ransom facilitated weekly meetings last month for an ad hoc committee called Citizens Who Support Preserving African & African-American History. The group had planned to meet Monday night with local and state elected officials to voice their opposition to the Whydah. Ransom decided to use the meeting instead to talk about change.

"We were opposing the MOSI project without ambiguity," Ransom said. "People make mistakes, and this was a mistake. We have to recognize it as a mistake and say how can we not deal with it again."

Nearly 14 years ago, deep racial tensions were exposed when a $70-million project was planned near Channelside for an exhibit of artifacts from a pirate ship that once carried slaves. Black residents questioned the appropriateness of the exhibit, and its organizers backed down.

"I don't think we consider this a victory," Ransom said. "It's certainly not a victory for our community to be dealing with this issue 15 years after we dealt with it before."

Michelle Patty, who opposed the plan in the '90s, said at least this time there was communication.

"Until people are open and honest and able to explore the whole Whydah and not in part, and don't want to feature the pirates as good loving pirates ... you shouldn't rush to do something like this," Patty said.

Norman, the exhibit company president, said he hasn't decided which city will host the Whydah. Some of the African-American leaders wondered if Ostrenko's statement left room for bringing the exhibit to town later.

"That wasn't part of our discussion," Norman said.

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

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