Yalies should be appalled at our administration’s betrayal of our commitment to the preservation and dissemination of culture for ourselves and for future generations. Yale is fortunate to have been endowed with some of the greatest cultural artifacts from around the world. We are therefore burdened with the duty to ensure that such objects are available in the best condition to the widest possible audience, for all time.
In considering the question of Yale’s Andean collection — bequeathed to us nearly a century ago by Hiram Bingham III 1898 — administrators ought to have borne in mind their duty to academia at large and to the general public, domestic and foreign, not to mention those by whom it was bequeathed to us. This decision was a cowardly one, delivered at the point of a bayonet. To relinquish the overwhelming majority of Yale’s South American collection is an exchange of, as Oakeshott would have said, “present laughter for future utopian bliss.”
Successive Peruvian governments have proven themselves thoroughly incapable of adequately safeguarding, preserving and displaying their nation’s own cultural heritage. A tradition of endemic corruption, political instability, occasional restraints on academic freedoms and the results of a nearly 30-year anarcho-Communist insurgency that has left 70,000 Peruvians dead make it eminently clear that Peru is a flawed home for these treasures. The most recent terrorist attack in Peru, this June, left six people dead and dozens injured in the market of an obscure town near the shores of Lake Titicaca. This is a home-grown, determined and concerted terrorist effort that shows a failure on the part of the Peruvian government to create a stable and inclusive political environment. This not yet considering the dereliction of duty by a century of Peruvian governments to adequately preserve, maintain and display the country’s own collection of some of the finest cultural relics in the world, let alone to ensure that the collection remains accessible to scholars. Foremost as an example of this is surely the disaster that has befallen the great Machu Picchu. One of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it faces severe threats from unregulated urban development in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. Furthermore, the government has taken few steps to protect the site from the dangers of the burgeoning tourist industry, from the risks posed by earthquakes, or from the contractors and businesses that swarm the ancient ruins.
All this, compared to the environment that Yale is and has for almost a century been capable of providing. Admittedly, though Yale has not hitherto been adequately displaying its Andean collection to the general public, it nonetheless has been preserved and curated to a remarkable degree, and it has been easily accessible to scholars and academics from all backgrounds. Indeed, the location of these pieces at Yale implies that they are important to world heritage, for the Andeans of old who made them have about as much in common culturally with those of us in America as they have with the Peru of our day. There is no political continuity between post-Bolivar Peru and the lands of the Incan Empire.
Another concern following the capitulation of the administration of this university is the precedent that it creates. Yale was threatened with punitive legal action, and by essentially delivering an unconditional surrender in a series of closed and unaccountable agreements, without a day in court, it has only succeeded in encouraging other governments to make claims not only on Yale’s collections, but also on countless other university collections across the globe. The governments of Greece, Egypt, Italy and others, all of which have frequently made similar demands, will only be emboldened by Yale’s concession. The effect for our Roman collections, the Chinese art at Harvard’s Sackler Museum, the Native American art at Stanford or the Greek vases at the University of Chicago is inestimable. From now on, governments can — and will — blackmail our universities for art.
The writers of Monday’s “News’ View” wrote at great length about multiculturalism. Yet multiculturalism does not mean shipping Peruvian artifacts to Peru, nor the Turners in Yale’s Center for British Art to Britain. The cause of multiculturalism is not served by sending works of art back to their geographic area of origin; rather, it is promoted by continuing to encourage truly international collections in diverse locations around the world, accessible to all.
At the very least, the Peruvian government should now pay Yale a century of rent and maintenance costs.
Noah Mamis is a senior in Branford College.