Peruvian settlement stands apart

Artifacts found by Hiram Bingham III 1898 have remained at Yale for nearly 100 years; they are now due to return to Peru.
Artifacts found by Hiram Bingham III 1898 have remained at Yale for nearly 100 years; they are now due to return to Peru. Photo by Drew Henderson.

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.

Hiram Bingham 1898 brought the Peruvian artifacts in question to Yale after his 1911 exploration of Macchu Picchu
Creative Commons
Hiram Bingham 1898 brought the Peruvian artifacts in question to Yale after his 1911 exploration of Macchu Picchu

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.

Comments

  • howardn

    Never mind that it is unlikely these artifacts would still exist if Bingham and Yale had not recovered and preserved them. This was not cultural theft by Yale, but it is cultural blackmail by Peru.

  • prion

    Run a story on the museum and university that will receive them, and the scholars who will continue to study them, so we can know that Yale isn’t sending these artifacts to a thinly disguised theme park at risk of poor funding from an unstable government.

  • pattersonj

    Will the artifacts be on display at the Peabody before departing?

  • The Anti-Yale

    howardn:

    So by your logic, if the French electician who worked for “Monsieur” for forty years turns out to have stolen the 200 Picasso’s he revealed yesterday as having been stored in his garage for decades , we should congratulate him since it “is unlikely these artifacts would still exist” if he had not preserved them?

    PK

  • River Tam

    Why is it unlikely that the Picasso’s would still exist if the electrician hadn’t stole them?

  • howardn

    One man’s trash is another’s treasure until history and lawyers get involved.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Let’s see RiverT :

    The Dead Sea Scrolls; The Diary of Samuel Pepys; much of Shakespeare and of Bach: All these have been accidentally resusitated from the vicissitudes of life, death and, in some cases, last wills and testaments.

    PK

  • JE14

    What is property?

    Why is this more the property of the University of Cuzco than of Yale. Neither are Incan Temples as far as I know. Neither of them is directly affiliated to the Incan tribe. I see the claim as being equal, (it belongs to neither) the only difference being that Yale has taken care of them for over hundred years, who knows where they would be now…

    The argument of saying that Peruvian people descend from the Incas is weak. I descend from the people of Mesopotamia, can I go back to Iraq and claim someone’s property saying that my ancestor used to live here? Did Germany take back the land that Poland stole after WWII?

    PK, Your analogy shows why many consider Yale Div. to be a joke.
    You compare Yale’s museums (among the finest on earth) to the garage of some obscure character that you just invented, and you compare the place where Yale found the artifacts to a museum (where these Picasso’s would have been stored). Really as usual you miss the point.

    The whole point is that in Post-WWII XXth and XXIth century, the West has continually felt the need to auto-flagellate itself in the name of political correctness. What rational reason is there to give these artifacts back? The only one I find is the need to appease your conscience, for what happened in the Colonial Era. These artifacts do not belong as I said before to the Peruvians or to Yale, they belong to humanity as a whole, it is our common heritage. They should be stored and exhibited where it is best for them, not for the ones exhibiting them. I think it is reasonable to assume they are better off here than in the Cuzco University.

  • River Tam

    > Let’s see RiverT :
    The Dead Sea Scrolls; The Diary of Samuel Pepys; much of Shakespeare and of Bach: All these have been accidentally resusitated from the vicissitudes of life, death and, in some cases, last wills and testaments.
    PK

    Except that Pablo Picasso died a world-renowned artist in 1973 and all those are documents were considered unremarkable at the time of their creation and are between 300 to 2000 years old.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Except that Pablo Picasso died a world-renowned artist in 1973 and all those are documents were considered unremarkable at the time of their creation and are between 300 to 2000 years old.”

    Can’t say as I know. Wasn’t around when the Dead Sea Scrolls were created, or Pepys was buried, or Shakespeare’s “second best bed” was bequeathed to his wife . Bach WAS world renowned (Europe was the world then) at his death, but was ignored for a century until Mendelssohn resuscitated him.

    The Picasso stash could have gone up in flames or down in mold , spending decades in a garage. Or it could have been passed on to a dust heap. (Have you read Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend?)

    Maybe you aren’t old enough to know what time does to the best of intentions.
    (That btw is one of the great lessons of Pepys’s Diary, all 12 million words of it.)

    PK

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” Really as usual you miss the point.”

    JE14,

    It is YOU who misses the point because you are speaking of the temporal universe.

    I am talking about the ethical universe.

    Is stealing Peruvian artifacts or Picasso art works noble if it brings about good?

    (Or to plagiarize my own words from another post about Wikileaks: Is governmental deceit about Pearl Harbor, the Gulf of Tonkin and WOMB in Iraq good, if it millions of military deaths later it brings about good?)

    You may be playing God—–as have our “noble” institutions.

    PK

  • River Tam

    > Bach WAS world renowned (Europe was the world then) at his death, but was ignored for a century until Mendelssohn resuscitated him.

    Bach was renowned as an organist, not as a composer.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Bach was renowned as an organist, not as a composer”

    The two were inseparable in his case. See link:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bach_cantata

  • roganjosh

    What ethical good is fulfilled by giving them to Peru? The value of these treasures transcends today’s political conveniences. I cannot imagine them having a better home in any Peruvian university than they have at Yale. Do you ever hear adjectives like ‘first-rate’, ‘world-reknowned’ or ‘high-quality’ applied to anything Peruvian that did not come from an ancient Incan, a llama or an alpaca?

  • The Anti-Yale

    You have reversed the question. Ethically, can anything good come from an unethical act(stealing) ?

  • River Tam

    > The two were inseparable in his case

    Except they weren’t. His work was considered pedagogic, rather than aesthetic, and was better known as a player (and for his famous children). He certainly composed with great gusto and many prominent musicians respected his work, but it was not popularly acclaimed until later.

  • The Anti-Yale

    NOTHING was “popularly acclaimed” at that time: the MEDIA hadn’t been invented. the Sunday service was the MEDIA, the town crier.

    Bach walked 250 miles to hear Buxtehude play the organ.

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