In mid-September, late on a Friday evening, a release went out.
“Yale,” declared the announcement, “will acknowledge Peru’s title to all the excavated objects,” referring, of course, to the Incan artifacts discovered in 1912 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham that became a point of contention when Peru’s former first lady demanded them back two years ago.
Deputy Provost for the Arts Barbara Shailor added glowing words to news of the breakthrough. “I think the agreement is groundbreaking and that it sets a wonderful collaborative example,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
And it is. The finding of common ground — after nearly a century of estrangement — is almost as much a triumph for the world as was the discovery of Machu Picchu’s rich history in the first place. But now nearly three weeks have passed since the deadline to formally sign an agreement. Even as officials insist all will be worked out soon, it’s clear something went wrong.
Maybe there’s a clue in what the mayor of Machu Picchu told a Peruvian news agency earlier this month.
“If something is taken from its home, it’s logical to want it back and not for someone else to take it,” said Edgar Miranda, calling the artifacts his country’s “right” to possess and bringing the nationalist viewpoint again to the forefront. “That is also what the people want.”
In other words, we are reminded that 100 years of rocky history and the most contentious of philosophical and legal questions cannot be put to rest with a signed — or unsigned, for that matter — document. In the initial jubilation, we all forgot that. Understandably.
But there’s a healthy flipside. The University’s dispute with Peru offers a window through which to debate some of the world’s most pressing international questions and to bring classroom theory to the real world.
Should the burden lie with Western universities and museums to return what was plundered from less wealthy worlds years ago? Should reparations be made? Or is studying artifacts at wealthy institutions like Yale ultimatley more beneficial given their resources and protection?
What about the explorers themselves? Was Hiram Bingham a thief — or, by discovering Machu Picchu, a great service to Peru’s culture and economy? Does it even matter?
And the big question: In the case at hand, who owns the artifacts? Is ownership defined by origin or long-term posession? Does — or should — one body of international law apply to all cases of cross-border exchange from years ago? How does moving historical artifacts from their place of original location negatively decontextualize them?
What first appears on the surface to be a cut-and-dried case of returning goods to their proper owners is complicated by the notion that neither Peru nor Yale have absolutely indisputable claims. And no simple resolution will change that.
This means an opportunity.
As an increasingly global school, where intellectual vigor is valued, Yale, through its students and faculty, should more actively take part in this international dialogue over the artifacts. Until now, it hardly has — save for a Master’s Tea here, a statement there. Pockets of the University — leaders at the Peabody Museum, the international population, Yale’s World Fellows, professors at Yale Law School, interested students — should take on this challenge, each in his own way.
It’s a big one.