Rolfe, Truslow and Zalles: Return Peru’s artifacts

Last month, after a meeting initiated by Yale alumni in Peru with Peruvian Minister of Culture Juan Ossio, 23 of Peru’s 43 Yale alumni signed and sent a letter to University President Richard Levin. In it, they expressed their opinion that it is time to end the dispute between Yale and Peru regarding the return to Peru of archeological artifacts removed from Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham since the citadel’s discovery in 1911. These artifacts have been the object of valuable research conducted by Yale in the years following the discovery, and some 300 pieces in good condition are presently on display at the Peabody Museum in New Haven. However, the situation does not sit well in Peru because Yale, 100 years later, continues to hold on to these artifacts despite having agreed to return them in due time. As the 100 year anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu approaches, articles regarding the Yale-Peru dispute have appeared almost daily in Peru’s leading newspapers as well as in newspapers and magazines in neighboring countries, and Yale publications have also given considerable attention to the matter.

Peru has long maintained a policy of protection of its cultural patrimony and has restricted its exportation. Consistent with this policy, and as a response to the removal of the Machu Picchu artifacts, Peru enacted several decrees that required that all the materials taken from Machu Picchu be returned to the country after reasonable periods of time had been allowed for Yale to conduct research activities. Bingham and Yale agreed to and acknowledged the obligation to return the material removed; since then, scholars have conducted valuable research that has added to the world’s appreciation and knowledge of Machu Picchu.

Despite the agreements, however, Yale has retained these artifacts for almost 100 years. As a result, Peru initiated legal action in 2008 seeking the return of the materials, but Yale has refused to do so and apparently seeks to justify its permanent retention of these materials by claiming that Peru failed to take timely legal action against Yale. Meanwhile, Yale continues to delay returning the artifacts.

Peru amended its complaint earlier this year to eliminate conflictive claims and has expressed interest in reaching an agreement. There is no doubt that Peru will be able to provide appropriate museum and research facilities for the Machu Picchu materials. It already hosts world-class exhibits in archeological museums on several sites, and given its strong academic and research capacities relating to its cultural patrimony, it would greatly benefit from collaboration with Yale on a facility in the Cusco area, a center for pre-Columbian and Colonial cultural investigation. This would be an obvious, forward-looking fit with Yale’s global university policy. And it is just one example of possible future collaboration.

In the Sept. 17 hearing called by the Federal District Court in New Haven, Yale pursued a a narrow, technical statute of limitations argument amounting to a “knock-out” blow against Peru. But a “win” on these terms will not benefit Yale; rather, it will indefinitely prolong this conflict, making any future collaboration almost impossible.

Yale plans to establish itself as a “global university” supporting independent liberal arts education all over the world through the Jackson Institute, the new initiative in Singapore and the like. This same multicultural sensitivity should be applied to Machu Picchu in order that its actions not undercut its reputation and the good work it proposes.

Yale alumni in Peru have a unique perspective of the present situation and are firsthand witnesses of the great progress made by Peru over the last several decades that will enable it to receive, exhibit and continue research on the Machu Picchu artifacts. Their concern is not about whether Yale’s legal arguments are logically defensible or not; their concern is about Yale’s rising above such conflict, putting legal distinctions aside, showing a willingness to accommodate the enormous importance of these objects to Peru, and lifting a barrier to future cooperation between Yale and Peru, so that both can work hand in hand to contribute to a greater understanding of an ancient culture and its preservation today.

It is time for Yale and Peru to stop this conflict and start building together on the common ground of protecting and understanding Peru’s rich cultural heritage. The Yale-Peru dispute is an important test of the ability of different cultures to understand and work with each other. Given that Peru’s 2011 presidential campaign is underway and there may consequently be a tendency for overstatements by political candidates concerning the dispute, Yale must find a quick and cooperative way to return the artifacts while the political environment is still reasonably calm.

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