Incan artifacts held at Yale for nearly a century will soon travel back to their native home of Peru, but experts said their return journey is unlikely to spark a domino effect in museums around the world.
According to last week’s memorandum of understanding between Yale and Peru, all of the Incan artifacts held at the University will be returned to Peru by the end of 2012. The dispute has been compared to others about artifacts held in museums far from their place of origin, but sources said the case of the Incan artifacts at Yale is one step in a slow trend of cultural repatriation rather than a dramatic shift in the global debate over where the world’s cultural treasures belong.
“What Yale is doing is moving toward the new attitude [of archaeology] — obviously in a big way,” said Willard Boyd, former president the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Ill. and an expert on museum and non-profit law.
International attitudes toward artifact repatriation are changing, he said, but he is unsure when — if ever — other large museums such as the British Museum will return their controversial holdings to their parent countries. Unlike Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, which houses the Incan artifacts, “universal museums” with the prestige of the British Museum view their mission as “holding these [artifacts] for the benefit of the world,” he said. Deaccession of an artifact from a museum collection is even more difficult than the process of accession, Boyd added.
Boyd said whether or not the British Museum in London will repatriate its contested relics, such as the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian tablet discovered in 1799 that facilitated the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, is “a different story” from that of the Incan artifacts, though Egypt has repeatedly demanded the Rosetta Stone’s return since 2003.
Terry Garcia, executive vice president of the National Geographic Society — which sponsored the Yale explorer Hiram Bingham’s III 1898 mission to Peru in 1911 — said earlier this month that Yale’s conflict with Peru differs from high-profile cases like the Rosetta Stone or the contested Elgin Marbles from the Greek Parthenon in that the Incan relics were never intended to remain in New Haven permanently.
“There was a very clear intent on all sides that these objects were on loan,” Garcia said. “That’s not the situation with the Elgin Marbles [nor] with the Rosetta Stone.”
And because Peru was already an independent country when the artifacts were excavated, Garcia said this dispute is fundamentally different than the debates over the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, whose acquisitions took place when Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt was under British control.
Still, Boyd said the American explorers and academics faced little opposition in negotiations with Peru in the early 1900s.
“Of course Peru was independent at the time,” Boyd said. “But very dependent on outsiders — they were not doing any archaeological work themselves.”
The artifacts — which consist of household items and human remains — have been at Yale since the 1911 expedition in which Bingham made the scientific discovery of Machu Picchu. The recent agreement provides for the return of the artifacts over the next two years, with those artifacts most suitable for museum display being returned in time for the centennial of Bingham’s discovery in July 2011.
Boyd called the case between Yale and Peru evidence of changing attitudes toward less developed cultures in the fields of archaeology and anthropology.
“In older times, archaeology and anthropology were viewed as a Western profession going to look at … what they may have called in the old days ‘primitive cultures,’” Boyd said, adding that the word “primitive” has fallen out of favor.
Over the last 20 years, archaeologists have made increasing efforts to respect artifacts’ source locations, Boyd said. The American Association of Museums, of which the Peabody is a member, has changed its curatorial Code of Ethics for Museums to reflect the growing importance of pieces’ countries of origin, Boyd said, though he added that this code is non-binding and probably did not influence the Yale-Peru dispute. In 1970, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a convention regarding the movement of cultural property, which — among other restrictions — requires extensive documentation about an artifact’s origin before it can be moved. The treaty is not retroactive and does not apply to the Incan artifacts currently held at Yale.
“What you really have is a changing attitude toward these countries which are rich in antiquities — an increasing respect for them and [their] ability to handle their heritage,” Boyd said.
When museum curators face a decision whether or not to repatriate artifacts, Boyd said they face two concerns: whether they would be weakening the museum’s collection, and whether the artifacts would be adequately displayed and protected in the country of origin. He added that he believes Peru probably provided assurance that the artifacts will be adequately preserved as a part of the most recent agreement.
Yale and Peru are negotiating the terms of an agreement that will allow collaborative research of the artifacts in Peru, University President Richard Levin said in an interview with the News Sunday night. He added that the University will make sure the objects will be well preserved and open for research.
Boyd said prominent museums’ refusal to repatriate ancient artifacts has hindered scholarship, causing countries like Peru to put in “wall-to-wall cultural patrimony laws,” which have virtually halted the movement of relics across the countries’ borders. Since the UNESCO treaty, he added, there have been steps toward greater movement of artifacts, but it remains restricted.
After the artifacts return to Peru in 2012, Boyd said, it is possible that they will come back to Yale under loan. According to Peruvian law, artifacts like the Incan relics can travel abroad for research and exhibition for periods of up to two years, Levin said Sunday.
“I think there should be some movement,” Boyd said. “So that they’re not forever locked up in one part of the world.”
The first shipment of artifacts will return to Peru in early 2011.