Unpacking artifacts’ future in Peru

The artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu nearly 100 years ago will return to Peru this spring.
The artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu nearly 100 years ago will return to Peru this spring. Photo by Sarah Nutman.

This is a three-part series exploring Yale’s decision to return artifacts from Machu Picchu to Peru: the history behind it, the negotiations leading up to it, and its ramifications. Part 3 investigates the viability of the agreement between Yale and Peru, and how the artifacts will be treated once in Peru. (Read part 1 and part 2.)

When University President Richard Levin signed Friday’s agreement establishing future plans for the Machu Picchu artifacts in the Yale Corporation Room of Woodbridge Hall, it finalized a shift in Yale’s tone from one of resistance to one of cooperation. The message is one he has tried to achieve over the past decade and one that has required many rounds of negotiations; ultimately it was only possible through a newfound willingness on Yale’s part to relinquish all the artifacts.

Nearly one year prior, a different document made its way to Woodbridge. It was a letter from Fred Truslow ’61, a classmate and fraternity brother of John H.L. Bingham ’61, Hiram Bingham’s III 1898 grandson, pushing Yale to end its tensions with Peru. As Truslow recalled, Levin responded that Yale was “very interested in an amicable resolution of this problem.”

Hiram Bingham III 1898 removed artifacts from Machu Picchu during his 1912 exploration.
Hiram Bingham III 1898 removed artifacts from Machu Picchu during his 1912 exploration.

But it has taken years to find one that allows, as Levin said in his speech at the signing on Friday, Yale to fulfill a dual need. With the new accord, “Yale recognizes the unique importance of Machu Picchu,” Levin said. “At the same time, Yale remains committed to its mission of ensuring the conservation and access for scientific study of the material excavated by Bingham at Machu Picchu a century ago.”

In an office nearly 4,000 miles away, changing perspective has also been a necessary task. Juan Ossio took the helm the newly-created Ministry of Culture in September, charged with the task of getting the objects home. While other politicians pushed hard rhetoric, Ossio worked to provide carrots to counter the sticks. Two weeks after taking office, he met with Yale alumni living in Peru to discuss the Machu Picchu artifacts. In press conferences, he conceived of possible solutions to the conflict such as offering to build a brand new museum to house them and creating a common fund to bring academics from around the world to conduct research on the objects with Peruvian students. When Peru threatened criminal charges, he expressed interest in visiting New Haven. His top priority was getting the objects back.

Four months later, his top priority is figuring out how best to show them off.

Shortly after the agreement was signed in November, Ossio announced that the first shipment of returned objects would temporarily go to Lima’s Museo de la Nación, a large history museum that doubles as the Ministry of Culture’s headquarters.

Casa Concha, a 16th century mansion in Cusco, will be the new home for the artifacts, as well as the site of the collaborative center between UNSAAC and Yale.
Casa Concha, a 16th century mansion in Cusco, will be the new home for the artifacts, as well as the site of the collaborative center between UNSAAC and Yale.

Then he reconsidered.

“The President told me, ‘Maybe it would be more emblematic if they are in the Government Palace.’” Ossio said in January. On Tuesday, he confirmed that President Alan García was planning to exhibit the objects in the Palace, which is often used for exhibitions of particular importance to the nation.

Emblematic, it could be said, has been the government’s mantra of late. Just before 2011 began, President García designated this year the “Year of the Centennial of Machu Picchu to the World.” This designation is usually reserved for the centennials of Peruvian authors, artists and other luminaries. According to Ossio, the objects will fly to Peru on the president’s plane. Sting, Paul McCartney or Bono, President of the National Chamber for Tourism Carlos Canales has said, will come to the mountain this July joining Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, an author who is, if possible, even more celebrated in Peru. (Ossio also announced that famed Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez would sing at the site in April; Florez’s manager denied it, saying he had a prior engagement in New York.)

There will also be members of the Bingham family present at Machu Picchu this year. Abigail Bingham Endicott added that she was in contact with the committee in charge of planning the centennial celebrations.

Already, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, a five-star luxury hotel on the mountain, has sold out for both July 7, the date of the planned centennial celebration and the anniversary of Machu Picchu becoming a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site and July 24, the actual 100th anniversary of Bingham’s arrival. (A spokesperson for the Orient-Express Hotels Ltd., which owns the lodge, noted, however, that the high demand of accommodations is not atypical during the high season.)

It is particularly significant to the Peruvian government that citizens visit the site during the centennial year and celebrate the artifacts’ return. To encourage Peruvians to travel to Machu Picchu, the chamber of tourism has launched Mapi Pone, a campaign to attract nationals to the site.

Ossio has also worked to leverage the return of the objects and the coming anniversary into support for a brand new museum, the Gran Museo del Tahuantinsuyo, outside of Cusco. “[We] have already the piece of land, … part of the money [and] we are in the process of preparing the documentation,” he said in January at his office. He now hopes to break ground in May, such that the first stones will be down before the pieces go to Cusco.

Like all of Peru, it will be waiting.

THE COMEBACK

But for some, the excitement and anticipation is coupled with anxiety.. As has been the case for the entirety of the 20th century, there are still fears that the pieces will not come back — or not all of them, at least.

Eliane Karp-Toledo, the former Peruvian first lady whose husband is running for reelection this April and, by many accounts, the instigator of the dispute nine years ago, is among the wary. “For me, it’s too vague,” she said of the agreement.

Chief among her concerns is the inventory. “We don’t really know how many pieces are coming back or which pieces are coming back when,” she said. Karp-Toledo is skeptical of anything that could be used to derail this agreement and prevent Peru from getting its objects. She’s worried about timing and the fact that a new administration will oversee the return of most of the pieces, as García’s term expires in July and he is ineligible for reelection. She’s worried about the possibility of Yale stalling, of not holding up their end of the agreement or acting in good faith — “Which very frankly, I had to go through over 10 years,” she said.

Peru’s current officials, however, do not share her concern. “I am confident that all the Machu Picchu collection will be returned to Peru as agreed,” Undersecretary for Cultural Foreign Policy, Liliana Cino de Silva said. In the past, there have been concerns about unreconciled inventories, largely due to whether pieces are counted by lot, shard or fragment. But now, Cino said, there is a consensus. The inventory being used, per the memorandum of understanding, is one that Yale provided and Peruvian experts verified, she explained.

“Right now we’re in agreement,” Richard Burger ’72, anthropology professor and the curator of the Machu Picchu collection at Yale, said when asked about the differing inventories Monday. “It’s moot at this point.”

Still, there will be objects in Yale’s West Campus laboratory that do not go back.

The November memorandum of understanding obliges Yale to return all pieces excavated from Machu Picchu in accordance with the 1912 and 1916 resolutions. Most clearly, this excludes the collection Bingham excavated in 1909 from Choquequirau, another Inca site, on an expedition that predates his arrival at Machu Picchu. In addition, under the November agreement, the University does not have to return a number of pieces Bingham bought from traders while in Peru. According to both Burger and Peabody Museum Curator Lucy Salazar, there are currently no plans to send them back, because, as she said, “[the collection] was bought and not excavated.” The curators added that Bingham, in fact, used his personal money to make the acquisitions nearly a century ago.

While both Burger and Salazar declined to comment on the expedition or expeditions during which the objects were bought, Historian Christopher Heaney ’03 notes in his book, “Cradle of Gold” that Bingham purchased a number of objects in Peru and smuggled them to New Haven in 1914, an activity banned by an 1893 law prohibiting the export of cultural goods. Bingham sent more under a pseudonym in 1916. The book also notes that when Peruvian archeologist Luis Eduardo Valcárcel came to New Haven in 1962, he saw one of the pieces Bingham had bought in Yale’s collection.

A DIFFERENT TYPE OF CASE

The November memorandum has been brokered carefully, so that Yale and Peru can each achieve their objectives. The agreement, Yale says, is not supposed to set a precedent for the repatriation of cultural artifacts both for the University and for the world; in fact, certain provisions guard against it.

Chief among them is the emphasis placed on the means by which the objects were originally taken from Peru.

“National Geographic, Yale and Bingham entered into an agreement with Peru during the excavations at Machu Picchu,” Terry Garcia, executive vice president of National Geographic Society, explained. “It reflected an intent that those objects were out on loan and that they would be returned to Peru at some definite point in the future.” Peruvians are of the same opinion. “It is understood that this is a special case for Yale; it is not a precedent,” Eduardo Ferrero, Peru’s lawyer, said.

What also sets the return of these objects apart is the unique importance the mountain they came from has come to hold in the hearts of Peruvians. “It was not always the case, but Machu Picchu has become now a very important element of Peru’s cultural and historical identity,” said Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, who negotiated the agreement on Yale’s behalf. In addition, Yale is not simply turning the artifacts over and washing its hands of them, but joining in an academic partnership with a university older than itself. Zedillo said that these considerations, in addition to the assurance of the artifacts’s safety, were a laid out to the Peruvian president from the outset of negotiations in Lima.

MEETING EXPECTATIONS

While Yale has emphasized the importance of the artifacts as part of Peruvian identity, it remains to be seen whether the Inca relics will sustain the same excitement once they return home.

When Peru released an inventory of the collection that extended the 5,000-piece collection into 46,332 objects in 2008, it energized Peruvians. So did the marches, speeches and letters of the past two years. But in romanticizing the story and establishing a sense of victimization, the nature of the objects may have gotten lost.

“The problem is that in Peru people think that there are 40,000 golden pieces … that were stolen … shotgun in hand,” Castillo said. For as long as the objects have been at Yale, there have been misperceptions about them. When David Bingham ’62, grandson of Hiram, visited Machu Picchu in the 1980s, he was asked at a press conference how the family had gotten rich selling artifacts and which of them were in his home. There were none. Hiram had given the entire collection to Yale’s Peabody Museum in 1923.

Fears about the country’s reaction to the pieces came up the last time Yale was set to return them, too. “There is nothing here that [Peruvians] will not be disappointed in,” Bingham wrote in a 1920 letter to Gilbert Grovesnor, head of the National Geographic Society at the time. “In fact, when they see the material they will probably accuse us of having sent them a lot of rubbish instead of the original material.”

When asked about this concern, Ossio admitted, “Perhaps there will be some disappointment.” But he is not too worried. “[It] depends on the way you present [the collection] … people are really enamored by the archeological context that is Machu Picchu.” Creating an environment where people can understand this context is a major goal he hopes to achieve with the Gran Museo that, he says, will take advantage of modern museography not only to conserve the objects but also to bring Inca society to life.

This strategy mirrors the one used by Burger and Salazar for their exhibit, “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,” which attracted over 1 million visitors during its two-year tour. It included a fiberglass replica of a typical Inca house, interactive displays and Bingham’s original equipment, photographs and diaries. “We used all sorts of gimmicks,” Burger said, laughing.

A DIFFERENT TYPE OF CONTEXT

Mariana Mould de Pease, a historian who got involved in this issue long before the politicians, is also concerned about context. She’s not worried about the gimmicks or technical matters; she’s worried about the truth — about the way Bingham and his “communication, not discovery” are portrayed.

There are two Peruvian versions, she explained. The official version characterizes Bingham as the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu. It is the version found in Cusco’s Museo Inka, in which Melchor Arteaga and Pablito Alvarez, who led Bingham to Machu Picchu are referred to only as “a farmer and a local boy.” It is the one that has three plaques on Machu Picchu commemorating Bingham’s arrival and none that make any mention of Augusto Berns, Thomas Payne or J.M. von Hassel, who may have arrived there long before him.

“The other version is the Cusqueños’ version,” she says, adding that the people of Cusco and many others living in the surrounding valley had known about Machu Picchu long before.

The city was never lost, says Jorge Flores Ochoa, a professor at University of San Antonio Abad del Cusco, whose family owned a tract of land that is now part of the town at the base of Machu Picchu. According to oral tradition passed through his aunts, they have always known about the archeological site. Bingham, himself, found the signature of Agustín Lizarraga on the famous Temple of Three Windows; according to Bingham’s journal, the day after he arrived at Machu Picchu, he interviewed Lizarraga at his nearby home.

“How could one call it a discovery, if we knew all of this?” Flores asked. He added that when Bingham arrived, Albert Guisecke, who was then the rector of UNSAAC, had told Bingham to connect with locals, including two of Flores’ uncles. Guisecke’s role is one Mould thinks continues to be understated even as new information has emerged about foreigners like Berns, Payne and von Hassel.

More important to Mould, however, is that 98 years ago, when Bingham began excavating and exporting objects, “the Cusqueños raised their voice about what was happening in Machu Picchu.” El Sol, Cusco’s newspaper, regularly denounced the excavations. Some even tried to block the train carrying the artifacts as it headed back to Cusco, Mould said. They were protecting their patrimony at a time when their government had seemingly given it away.

Heaney, the Bingham historian, would argue that both sides have been subject to oversimplification. “The perception that has been carved in the U.S. and at Yale about Hiram Bingham III really ignores how complex of a person he really was,” he said. Bingham did pay for artifacts and smuggle them out. But for the most part, he obtained permissions to take objects out of the country.

While he may not have been the first to arrive atop the great citadel, he was the first to see through the overgrowth, to have the vision and the ability to communicate the importance of the site to a world primed to accept it. It was the age of exploration. When Bingham left for Peru in 1912, the North Pole had just been found and the Yale explorers were even outfitted with a variation on the watch Ernest Shackleton used in his 1910 attempt to cross Antarctica. His photographs, his collections and perhaps especially his somewhat misguided “Lost City” statement on the pages of the New York Times and National Geographic thrust Machu Picchu onto the world stage.

“He was the master in intercultural communication, he was a workaholic, he did his homework, he wanted to advance in life, his ethics…” Mould said

“The truth lies somewhere in the middle,” Heaney said. He added that he thinks the return of the objects is the first step towards acknowledging and reconciling dual truths.

This is likely true for more than just the historical facts of Bingham’s discovery. For the first time in nearly a century, on the issue of Machu Picchu, Yale and Peru have reached an understanding.

And the two parties mostly agree, though there continue to be different reasons for why Yale ceded the collection, different accounts of how the agreement was reached and different stories of what the future must bring. But, on Friday, they again committed to work with one another. To try, perhaps, to find a common story.

Most of the nearly 70 rooms in the Casa Concha are empty. Over the next weeks and months, from now until the end of 2012, thousands of objects found at Machu Picchu will return in crates, some by presidential plane and many by ship, just as they had left. There, Peruvian researchers will carefully unpack the fragile pieces. They will restore the blemishes where Bingham’s glue has worn thin. Over the next century, they will fill gaps in the current understanding of the civilization that built a citadel by stacking stones of different shapes and structures.

The artifacts will sit in vaults not so different from the ones in New Haven, in a house that is older than Yale and much closer to home.

Comments