WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just under a year ago, Peruvians marched in the streets of Lima to protest Yale’s continued possession of thousands of their country’s cultural artifacts. Yesterday, representatives of the Peruvian government and the University gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the University and the conflict’s amicable resolution.
The Peruvian ambassador to the United States, Harold Forsyth, presented Yale President Richard Levin the Order “The Sun of Peru” in the grade of “Great Cross” from the Peruvian government at the Embassy of Peru residence in Washington, D.C. Levin’s distinction comes after over a decade of disputes between the University and Peru over the ownership of relics that had been housed at in New Haven since their discovery between 1911 and 1916 by Hiram Bingham III 1898. Over 350 pieces of Bingham’s discovery were moved to Cusco, the capital of the former Inca empire, this summer in time for the 100th anniversary of Bingham’s arrival at Machu Picchu. The rest of the artifacts will be returned by Dec. 31, 2012.
Levin thanked Forsyth for the award and directed attention to the partnership that has formed to steward the artifacts in years to come.
“I am grateful for the honor you bestow upon me today, but what is truly worthy of celebration is the steadfast commitment of the government of Peru, made manifest through our agreements with the government and University National San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC), to preserving and increasing the world’s knowledge and awareness of Machu Picchu and its history,” Levin said in his acceptance speech.
The Order of “The Sun of Peru” is the highest civilian award conferred by the Peruvian government to both Peruvian citizens and foreigners for extraordinary services to Peru or contributions to the art, literature, culture or politics of the country. According to Forsyth, the committee responsible for bestowing the award made an “absolutely unanimous” decision to honor Levin.
In contrast to the cordial environment Thursday night, past negotiations over the artifacts’ return were often hostile. Peru filed a lawsuit against Yale in December 2008, demanding the relics’ immediate return. Negotiations between the two parties stalled until last November, when Yale announced a new partnership with UNSAAC, which will house the artifacts.
The addition of UNSAAC to the equation eased many of Yale’s worries about returning the cultural treasures, according to Yale archaeology professor Richard Burger, who conducted extensive research on the artifacts during their time in New Haven. He said in February that Yale feared many of the pieces would go straight into national storage vaults if returned directly to the Peruvian government. Levin, too, has said in the past that the artifacts should be housed at a university where scholars of all nationalities can access them.
The dispute over these vestiges of Peruvian history has lasted for many years and through changing leadership in both Peru and New Haven. Forsyth took over the role of ambassador only recently, succeeding his predecessor Luis Montano at the end of August, and current Peruvian President Ollanta Humala entered office in late July. The previous president, Alan Garcia, saw the conflict with Yale come to a close before the end of his term, but his relationship with the University was not always a smooth one. Last October, his administration threatened to take Levin personally to criminal court over the ownership of the Machu Picchu relics, though Garcia never stopped calling to “renew the friendship” between Yale and Peru.
Still brimming with excitement at the artifacts’ return, representatives of the new government had only positive things to say about Yale Thursday, and Forsyth praised Levin’s leadership and thanked him for his involvement in resolving the dispute.
“[Levin] was absolutely instrumental in promoting this Memorandum of Understanding between Peru and the University,” Forsyth said. “He forced our possibilities to be ahead of our time and took care of the heritage of Peru as if he were a Peruvian himself. If there were one person who deserves this honor, it’s him.”
Peru has also decided to honor another Yale affiliate who helped broker the long-awaited agreement: Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, director of the Yale Center for Globalization and former President of Mexico, who Levin sent to Peru last November to begin negotiation proceedings. Zedillo could not attend Thursday’s ceremony, and will receive his “The Sun of Peru” Order at a later date, Minister and Deputy Chief of Missions for Peru Fernando Quirós said.
All five Peruvian officials interviewed said they were excited about the artifacts’ return to Peru and appreciated Levin’s role in facilitating the compromise. Quirós said the citizens of Peru were overjoyed at the return of their country’s artifacts.
“The day the artifacts arrived in Peru, there were people in the Lima airport waiting for them as if they were big music stars,” he said. “People all along the streets were waving and saluting the artifacts. There were big, big celebrations in Lima and Cusco.”
Others at the ceremony agreed that the return of the artifacts was a momentous occasion for Peruvian citizens. Luis Chang, head of public diplomacy, said the pieces were greeted with enthusiasm because of their “iconic” appeal. He added that he was glad that Peru was able to reach a friendly agreement with Yale and that both sides could benefit from shared research.
“Despite the long history and litigation process, Peru and Yale reached an agreement that is in the best interest of the protection of cultural patrimony, the historical interest of the Peruvian people and the role of Yale as a global university,” Jonathan Hamilton, a member of the lead counsel representing Peru, said after the ceremony.
The Orden del Sol del Peru award has also been given to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chinese President Hu Jintao and legendary British musician Paul McCartney.
Drew Henderson contributed reporting.