More on Yale and Peru


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.

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

Yale and Peru, An Uneasy Relationship? (UPDATE)


There has been an increase in attention paid to the tentative agreement, not yet concluded, between Yale University and Peru over artifacts from Machu Picchu. The former first lady of Peru, Eliane Karp-Toledo had an Op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday which was a scathing criticism of Yale University.

Yale University Staff reporter Paul Needham has also done some excellent reporting on this controversy, a recent article from Feb. is here, and an earlier one in Jan. is here.

I commented on the tentative Memorandum of Understanding back in September, and on the claims for repatriation back in June.

As I understand it, the initial agreement seemed to be an outstanding agreement for all concerned. 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.

Despite what would seem to be a very good agreement for both sides, Karp-Toledo is very critical of Yale University, and indeed Hiram Bingham III who discovered the objects. She argues 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 claims “Yale continues to deny Peru the right to its cultural patrimony, something Peru has demanded since 1920.”

Yale University wants to keep many of the pieces which aren’t fit for museum display and study them, under a new 99-year lease. That doesn’t seem to me to be unreasonable, given Peru’s slight legal claims to the objects. It would seem that any legal claim Peru could bring for these objects has long since passed the statute of limitations. Peru has no tenable legal claim to the objects, however they do have a very powerful, even emotional ethical claim for the return of these objects. However, it seems to me that the ethical claims for return which have characterized the recent restitutions to Italy and Greece are absent in this case.

Unless I am missing something, Yale has absolutely no legal obligation to return the objects. I find it a bit puzzling that some in Peru are so critical of the potential agreement. The answer may be directly tied to notions of colonialism, past injustices, and even the current indigenous political movements there. However, the goal should be to advance the study of Peruvian heritage, to continue to publicize the site itself and encourage responsible tourism there. A frank discussion of the tangible benefits that both Yale and Peru will potentially receive is needed, however in these discussions it is often difficult to move beyond notions of identity and heritage, which often trump the more practical realities of what may be at stake.

(hat tip: Donn Zaretsky)
(photo credit)

UPDATE:

It seems others have shared my initial reaction to Karp-Toledo’s piece. Lee Rosenbaum wonders how some of the more extreme comments made it into the piece.

Paul Needham continues his fine work on this story in the Yale Daily News and gives reaction from individuals at yale. Richard Burger, an archaeology professor at Yale called the Op-Ed “sour grapes”. It seems Helaine Klasky, Yale University spokeswoman is preparing a response. That should be interesting.

One wonders perhaps how pure Karp-Toledo’s motives may be. There is no question sites in Peru have been looted, but I don’t think Macchu Picchu is one. Is she using Hiram Bingham III as a political symbol, which generates public interest? I see a corollary to what Alex Salmond has done in making ill-conceived calls for return of objects from the British Museum. I do not see what grounds Peruvians may have to question this accord, which seems to be an extremely generous offer from Yale. Perhaps they should learn from a fellow nation of origin, Italy, which seems to have embraced the idea that it needs these cultural institutions in Europe and North America. Peruvians may regret that it was an American archaeologist who took objects from Macchu Picchu, but as Burger said “Yale would do well in a trial.”

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

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