Yale, an academic institution in New England, and Peru, an ancient Andean country of nearly 29 million, are unlikely to have similar agendas, and what benefits one is not necessarily in the interest of the other.
That makes Friday’s agreement between Yale and Peru all the more remarkable for finding common ground between Yale’s academic interests and Peru’s political and cultural ones. By satisfying both parties, the compact provides a model for ethical academics, a form of study that emphasizes both the quality of the work and the impact of that work on those outside the academic community.
Yale’s designation as a landmark “ivory tower” belies the very outward-focused nature of much of the work that goes on within our seemingly forbidding walls. From political science professors whose work influences curent policymaking to engineering professors who patent their discoveries, Yale professors are not the inveterate navel-gazers that some would have us believe.
By providing for the construction of a new museum in Peru with Yale’s assistance, the settlement enriches both Peru and Yale in almost equal measure. Yale shows its respect for Peru’s right to its cultural patrimony while bolstering the world’s knowledge of that patrimony by enabling further academic research and by making the objects more accessible to visitors, Peruvian and foreign. In fact, the settlement with Peru could broaden the academic research currently under way by making many more artifacts accessible to researchers here at Yale.
Academic study of a culture should engender in scholars an appreciation for the culture, and that appreciation should not be divorced from an awareness of how that culture exists and develops in the real world. The point of studying another culture is to further knowledge of that culture, but to whose benefit? The agreement with Peru is Yale’s statement that its research into the significance of the Incan artifacts should benefit not just professors in New Haven, but also Peru by making those interpretations available, through the new museum, to those residents of Peru unable to trek to the Peabody Museum in New Haven.
The form of the Peru-Yale agreement hinges upon Yale’s research interests and might not be so easily applicable to visitor-driven art institutes such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the J. Paul Getty Museum, which are also criticized for possessing objects of questionable provenance. Even those museums, however, could take a lesson from Yale’s newfound willingness to consider the ethical problems created by contemporary cultural realities in its study of ancient artifacts.
Yale’s willingness, of course, was sparked by Peru, which first raised the question of Yale’s claim to the artifacts, and Yale did not settle with Peru as quickly as it perhaps could have. But this agreement is a true step toward making explicit the values that ought to underpin our allegedly ivory-tower scholarship. That is, knowledge becomes valuable though application, and knowledge shared should be the most treasured kind.