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)


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

2 thoughts on “Yale and Peru, An Uneasy Relationship? (UPDATE)”

  1. This news make Americans look pretty bad. The claim that these artifacts will be taken care better in the US than in Peru is nonsense. These are Peru’s national treasures. See the article below and realize that foreign articles are not safe in US museums.


    Due to a March 31, 2008 Federal District Court ruling in Massachusetts, Iranians around the world are feeling their grip on their heritage loosen. Artifacts from the ancient city of Persepolis and archeological site, Chogha Mish that are currently on display by Harvard University and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are now on the chopping block. Due to the court case, Rubin et al v. Islamic Republic of Iran, these artifacts can now be sold on behalf of several plaintiffs seeking to recover $259 million in court-awarded damages against the government of Iran. The following is a brief background of the artifact case and its proceedings.

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