On Sunday, Peru’s state news agency reported that Peruvian researchers have said Yale University researchers (i.e. Hiram Bingham) took more than 40,000 objects from Machu Picchu in the early part of the last century. This, the Peruvian news agency claimed, is 10 times more than the original estimate. Reuters has a summary in English.
Hernan Garrido Lecca released the inventory results to the state news agency. A team from Peru’s National Institute of Culture traveled to Yale in March to take an inventory of the objects at the University. Part of the discrepancy here may involve how these objects are accounted. If a ceramic object is in 15 pieces for example, does it qualify as 1 object or 15? I’m not sure of the answer to that question, perhaps there is a standard in the museum community? This may account for the discrepancy, rather than any bad faith on Yale’s part.
Some may remember Yale and Peru had a tentative agreement to settle the disposition of these objects, which resulted in a Memorandum of understanding back in September. That agreement appears to have been a good bargain for both parties.
Peru would receive title to the objects, many of the research pieces would remain in Connecticut under a 99-year lease, there would be an international traveling exhibitions, and finally Yale would help build a museum and research center in Cuzco. Such an institution would seem to be badly needed, as there are indications the current museum near the Aguas Calientes train station is not fit for purpose:
The doors were open to the air, which was moist from the nearby river, and the sole official was a caretaker who sold tickets and then exited the building. On display in the attractive (if unguarded) museum are the finds that Peruvian archaeologists have made at Machu Picchu in the years since Bingham’s excavations.
In February, former first lady of Peru Eliane Karp-Toledo had harsh words for the Memorandum of Understanding and for Yale University. Despite what would seem to be a very good agreement for both sides, Karp-Toledo was very critical of Yale University, and indeed Hiram Bingham III who discovered the objects. She argued the objects were only to be taken from Peru for 12 months, and that legal title to all the objects must be returned to Peru. She claimed “Yale continues to deny Peru the right to its cultural patrimony, something Peru has demanded since 1920.”
The repatriation claims are often tied to colonial mistreatment, and are often closely aligned with Indigenous-rights movements. Those may be good things, however in this case I am not sure what the current leaders of Peru would want to do differently or would seek. Yale has, it would appear, a very secure interest in the objects; and they are certainly not under any obligation to return them any time soon. By increasing the claims that Yale University has mistreated Peruvian heritage, I wonder if perhaps Peru may risk losing the bargaining chips which were gained in the 2007 MoU.