"Peru is rightful owner of artifacts"

So argues former First-Lady of Peru Eliane Karp-Toledo in an Op-Ed today in the Miami Herald (for a brief discussion of another Op-Ed in the NY Times, see here). She discusses the ongoing dispute between Yale and Peru over objects taken from Peru by Hiram Bingham, and effectively communicates Peru’s position—and only their position.  Though I think it is reasonable to criticize some of the actions of Yale University since they have held the objects, Karp-Toledo does her argument a disservice I think by ignoring some very real and well-founded differences of opinion between Yale and Peru.

For example, she argues “Many years of frustrated negotiations, and Yale’s presentation of an insensitive ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ in 2007, finally led the Republic of Peru to file a lawsuit against Yale in the District Court for Washington, D.C., in December 2008.”  Yet I’m not really sure how that memorandum was “insensitive”; nor does Karp-Toledo really tell us why.  That agreement, now apparently abandoned, aimed at creating a kind of lease which would have created a collaborative relationship between Yale and Peru.  It would have been similar in form perhaps to the agreements Italy has been promulgating with many institutions forced to return looted antiquities.  Peru would have received title to all the objects, with many remaining in Connecticut. There would have been an international traveling exhibition, and proceeds would help build a much-needed new museum and research center in Cuzco. Yale also would have provided funds to establish a scholarly exchange program. As Yale president Richard C. Levin said at the time, “We aim to create a new model for resolving competing interests in cultural property,… This can best be achieved by building a collaborative relationship — one which involves scholars and researchers from Yale and Peru — that serves science and human understanding.”  I’m afraid I don’t see how this arrangement was “insensitive”. 

File:MuseoSicán lou.jpgAnother point of contention is where these objects may be stored if they are returned.  Though she points out the Royal Tombs Museum of Sipán (pictured here), she has little to say about the current exhibition near Machu Picchu at Aguas Calientes.  An expanded center such as the one Yale had offered would seem to be badly needed, as there are indications the current museum near the Aguas Calientes train station is not fit for purpose, according to Arthur Lubow in a long piece in the NY Times Magazine:

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.

 I think it is worth asking at this point, how much of the ongoing dispute is a product of the effort to continue the Indigenous rights movement in Peru, irrespective of whether it is actually creating a better place to display these objects, and display them to the public—whether that is in the US or Peru?  I think that collaboration is a far better model, but I’m not sure Karp-Toedo has provided and argument which would call for zero collaboration.  Instead she seems eager to punish Yale and Hiram Bingham for taking Peru’s heritage.  A claim I think which is not supported by the facts as we know them.  Though there are certainly indications that these objects should have been returned to Peru long ago, they were not, perhaps because of intervening events (America’s involvement in WWI may have provided a distraction), neglect, negligence or even bad faith.  
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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