Repatriation and Macchu Picchu


There was an outstanding piece in yesterday’s New York Times magazine by Arthur Lubow on the fate of objects excavated by Hiram Bingham from Macchu Picchu. He found the ancient city in 1911 and excavated the site in 1912 and 1914. The objects he excavated are currently held by Yale University. There is also an excellent slide show of pictures taken during the original excavation. The piece does a great job of highlighting how difficult it can be to generate consensus in cultural policy.

At issue are the artifacts Bingham took back to Yale, which Peru argued were only to be on temporary loan. The excavated artifacts at New Haven are:

a bit of a letdown. Mostly, the pieces are bones, in varying stages of decomposition, or pots, many of them in fragments. Unsurpassed as stonemasons, engineers and architects, the Incas thought more prosaically when it came to ceramics. Leaving aside unfair comparisons to the jaw-dropping Machu Picchu site itself, the pottery of the Inca, even when intact, lacks the drama and artistry of the ceramics of earlier civilizations of Peru like the Moche and Nazca.

However, many Peruvians want the objects returned, in a dispute which echoes the claims made by the Greeks for the return of the Parthenon Marbles. However in this case I think Yale has a much stronger ethical claim.

Hilda Vidal makes the argument for the return of the collection:

“My opinion reflects the opinion of most Peruvians,” Hilda Vidal, a curator at the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru in Lima, told me. “In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish. Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. It saddens us Peruvians to go to museums abroad and see a Paracas textile. I am hopeful that in the future all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin.”

Part of that makes a good and sound argument to be sure, but you aren’t going to get far in a repatriation dispute by arguing the museums in Paris, New York, London, etc. should be emptied. Likewise, I have a difficult time lumping Bingham in with the Spanish conquerors who stripped temples and melted down gold to return to Spain. That doesn’t mean Bingham is a revered figure in Peru by any means. Rumors (which have been discredited) suspect Bingham of smuggling out gold during the excavation. Also, some accuse Bingham of not even discovering the ancient complex, which had always been known to local farmers.

Lubow correctly points out though that these antiquities and remnants of ancient cultures are used as objects of political power today. And they also have value for lots of other interest groups. As he said, “Historic relics have pragmatic value: politically, for purposes of national pride and partisan advantage; economically, for display to tourists, museumgoers, magazine readers and TV-program watchers; scientifically, as research material for scholars pursuing academic careers; and, most nakedly, as merchandise for dealers in antiquities.”

That’s exactly right, and all these interest groups make it difficult to forge cultural policy. The strict national patrimony laws of Peru even make it difficult for reasonable compromise with Yale. Yale has generously offered:

The university showed me two letters sent to Peruvian officials in which Yale offered to send back “the museum-quality (that is, whole) objects excavated by Bingham at Machu Picchu” for display in a “state-of-the-art museum exclusively dedicated to Machu Picchu” that would be opened in Cuzco in collaboration with Yale on the centennial anniversary of Bingham’s 1911 discovery of the site. To help raise money for the museum, Yale would resurrect its touring exhibition, which — including dioramas and ceramics — would end up permanently in Cuzco. This represents a significant concession over Yale’s past proposal to divide possession of the approximately 300 display-worthy objects. The research collection, however, would continue to reside in New Haven. “The museum-quality pieces are the ones that people will want to see,” Shailor, the deputy provost, told me. “I don’t think they will want to see the end of a little finger or five dog bones, but these are extraordinarily valuable from a research perspective.” When I spoke with him in early May, Levin said that Yale is prepared to concede Peruvian title to the entire collection, but only after the ultimate physical allocation of the objects has been negotiated. In other words, Peru’s pride will be assuaged if Yale’s research needs can be met. Whether Peru will consent to those terms — indeed, whether the GarcÃa government is at liberty to do so, legally or politically — is uncertain;

The offer strikes me as a fair compromise which would be a win for both sides, especially considering the current state of the museum near the Aguas Calientes train station:

I found evidence of none of those amenities. 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.

And that gets to the heart of repatriation disputes. Like it or not Yale has a great deal of funds at its disposal and is capable of performing good scientific study, while in Peru, the artifacts could be at risk of theft and are not climate controlled. It seems Yale’s offer to fund a museum in Peru would be an excellent opportunity for Peruvians. Yet it seems many of the strident cultural nationalists have a hard time with even this compromise.

Hat tip to Donn Zaretsky at the art law blog for pointing out the article.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

1 thought on “Repatriation and Macchu Picchu”

  1. It doesn’t seem absolulely inevitable that a Peruvian seeing Peruvian objects in a foreign museum must be sad. Why not proud? Why not pleased that the objects serve as ambassadors to the rest of the world?

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