On a windy Tuesday morning in March, the patrons of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History include a spirited school group and a family of five. As these two disparate groups migrate through the exhibits on the first floor, they travel, perhaps unknowingly, through continents and millennia of natural history. They pass by “The Age of Reptiles,” one of the world’s largest frescoes, which dominates the walls of the Great Hall and chronologizes millions of years of evolutionary history. They gape at the dinosaur fossils of the Jurassic era, then turn a corner to admire the leaves of gold from the California gold rush.
The Peabody’s collections chart the progression of time and space and present a panoramic view of the world’s abundant natural history. “Just about every exhibit in the museum places a visitor in a place and at a moment in time,” said David Skelly, the director of the Peabody. Although situated near the intersection of Sachem Street and Whitney Avenue, the museum’s exhibits transport visitors to geographic landscapes and temporal moments far beyond the streets of New Haven. Skelly believes that this is how a museum should be: that people “should not only be seeing objects that come from where they do” and museums should be spaces “where societies and different parts of the world have ways of directly understanding each other.”
But what happens when the question of ownership comes into the equation? What happens when the countries and communities from which objects originate ask for their objects back? Recently, as the museum has become embroiled in debates around restitution and repatriation, the Peabody has had to grapple with these exact questions and, by extension, its greater identity as a museum.
In 2009, the Peruvian government filed a civil lawsuit against Yale in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, demanding that the Peabody return the collection of artifacts Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III, class of 1898, excavated from Machu Picchu between the years 1911 and 1916. Yale had engaged in on-and-off discussions around the fate of these artifacts with the Peruvian government since 2003, but no consensus had ever been reached. By the time of the lawsuit, Peru had been requesting the return of these objects for at least 7 years. But Yale, aside from returning the occasional object, had largely refused to honor this request. Yale’s position on the question of ownership varied radically from the stance of the Peruvian government. The Peruvian government claimed that the objects’ legal exportation from the country in 1911 hinged upon the agreement that they would only be on loan. Yale, on the other hand, argued that the University had already returned the objects that were expressly borrowed and possessed full legal ownership, under the laws of the time, over the remainder of its collections.
The 2009 Peru lawsuit indicates the complexities around the topic of repatriation. Around the notion of ownership, many questions arise: Were the objects indeed only on loan? If the objects were legally exported under the laws of the time, but those laws have changed over time, which time period’s laws should be given primacy? Does the fact that Yale has invested a substantial amount of money preserving and maintaining these objects complicate ownership?
Following protest marches in cities across Peru and a letter released by Yale alumni urging for the return of these objects, the University and Peruvian government finally reached an agreement in November 2010. In 2012, the last of thousands of Machu Picchu artifacts — jewelry, ceramics and human bones — were returned to Peru. The Peruvian government granted then-University President Richard Levin the order “The Sun of Peru” in the grade of “Great Cross” — the highest civilian award the Peruvian government presents to citizens and foreigners — despite having threatened to specifically sue Levin in 2008.
Since the Peru lawsuit, the Peabody has worked hard to normalize restitution and repatriation work as part of regular museum operations. The scale of their work is large. Two major restitution projects were completed last year alone: the return of Mohegan artifacts to the tribe’s museum in Uncasville, Connecticut, and the repatriation of Maori and Moriori ancestors to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa. The museum also receives 10 to a dozen visits from tribal leaders every year who respond to the information the museum publishes about their collections. But the exact extent of the Peabody’s restitution work is hard to quantify. Neither Skelly nor the former or current Repatriation Compliance Coordinators — Erin Gredell and Jessie Cohen, respectively — could supply precise figures for the Peabody’s current or past repatriation projects. Gredell, who is currently the Peabody’s registrar, said that this is because “we’re always talking to groups” and “generally, we don’t comment on active consultation out of respect for the tribes and their privacy issues.” But with extensive holdings from Africa, Babylonia, the Caribbean, South America and the aboriginal communities of Australia, the museum likely possesses many more objects eligible for restitution that simply have not been identified yet.
Most of the restitution work the Peabody conducts is within the scope of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law enacted in 1990 that recognizes the rights of Native American nations to their cultural objects. The 2008 Peruvian and 2018 Maori cases were outliers because they were not conducted under NAGPRA: The Maori repatriation was an international case and therefore did not fall under the domestic coverage of NAGPRA, while the Mohegan objects were returned outside of the NAGPRA process as a voluntary gift from the Peabody.
“It’s rare that we get claims [for restitution] out of the blue. More often than not, it’s us reaching out to tribes and that often goes back to resources and even knowledge of our collections,” Gredell said. To better facilitate its work with NAGPRA, the Peabody has been photographing its collections and making these photographs publicly accessible so that tribal groups can see the objects and make claims accordingly.
But NAGPRA has shortcomings. According to Cohen, NAGPRA was “conservatively written so implementation often looks a little different than the law reads.” For instance, NAGPRA only acknowledges the right of federally recognized tribes to make claims, which means the law does not cover state recognized tribes and groups without either status. The Peabody can only use these federal grants to repatriate objects to federally recognized tribes.
The process to become federally recognized, however, is an expensive endeavor, which can consequently make federal recognition impossible for certain tribes. “Tribes are often put in the difficult situation of prioritizing their budgets and what they can spend money on and resources,” Gredell said. “And for them, unfortunately, NAGPRA can fall farther down on that list. If they had to choose between paying for gas and electric for people in the community and pursuing repatriation from a museum, they’re obviously going to take care of people now.”
For Gredell and Cohen, their work is therefore not only about abiding by the letter of the law, but also about fulfilling the spirit of the law. Gredell said that what’s most important in their line of work is to “keep going above and beyond in the spirit of what’s right and what’s ethical, to keep using the NAGPRA consultations as a launching pad to create more long-lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships with tribal organizations.”
In the museum industry, the concept of the “universal museum” — or “encyclopedic museum,” as it is more commonly known today — is a popular argument against the global push for restitution and repatriation. In 2002, 18 major international museums — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty and the British Museum — published a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.” The document’s argued that objects whose fates have been highly contested from an ethical standpoint in the museum world — like Holocaust-looted art or the Elgin marbles — should not have to be repatriated because the world deserves to see them. “Universal museums,” museums spaces which transcend national borders, would therefore be the ideal.
The Peabody, with its collections of material culture originating from so many different regions of the world, seems like it would possess a stake in the “universal museum” argument. But Skelly rejects the notion that the “universal museum” even exists. He said, “Museums that have declared themselves as such are practically exclusively in western Europe and North America. Such institutions are rare or absent in the global South and within poorer countries. We should all aspire to a world where museums of global reach and with collections of international importance are found throughout the world.”
Although Skelly does not believe in the existence of the “universal museum,” the breadth of the Peabody’s collections does saddle the museum with similar questions. Skelly brings up the example of Harold Conklin GRD ’55, a former ethnographer in the Yale Anthropology Department. Conklin conducted ethnographic research for many years in the highlands of Luzon, an island in the Philippines, documenting material culture as it existed: spending decades creating maps and recording land tenure patterns. If, all of a sudden, the people of the Ifugao approached the Peabody and asked the museum to return the material related to that work, Skelly said that it would provoke a large discussion. “Because the material was put together to work together to represent something that this person spent their entire working life toward,” Skelly said. “The question of who owns it doesn’t take into account what it was put together for and what it represents and the way that it’s available to everyone — anyone can come here and work with this stuff if they have a scholarly purpose.”
Skelly also finds a world in which “people are only supposed to see and understand objects that come from right there” counterproductive. “I don’t know whether that helps forward global aims that we all share,” he said.
The Peabody is not the only museum at Yale dealing with discussions around restitution. While the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art have not experienced any major restitution requests as the Peabody has, they contemplate similar tensions.
The YUAG particularly considers the notion of provenance: the history of an object’s ownership and its trajectory into the display cases of the museum. The YUAG’s website possesses an entire page devoted to pinpointing the objects within its collections with particular documentation gaps, including Nazi-era objects.
“The best we can do at all times is to get our collections online, to continually research them using the tools we have available [and] to put them out there so people know that they’re there and can ask us questions about them,” said Stephanie Wiles, the director of the YUAG. She also said that the notion of provenance documentation gaps was a misnomer in itself. “Everything possesses provenance gaps. Most objects made before our lifetimes probably have a gap and we don’t even know it. … We think of it as how do we document [works] as fully as we possibly can.”
Although its unusual stance as a museum in America centered around a non-American “national school” may exempt it from discussions of NAGPRA, the YCBA still weighs the fraught historical and colonial relationships between Britain and the world.
“Most all of our works are done by British artists, even though they range broadly across the world,” said Scott Wilcox, deputy director of collections of the YCBA. “Some do document encounters with indigenous people all over the world … but we are not dealing with works created by people acquired in less than savory ways.” Looking at certain pieces created by Indian artists for British patrons, however, Wilcox said that there are likely “mechanisms of creation of these works that were perhaps not to benefit the creators and were exploitive.”
The first major exhibition on indigenous art at Yale, curated by Katherine McCleary ’18, Leah Shrestinian ’18 and Joseph Zordan ’19, is set to open at the YUAG this November. The exhibition draws upon objects from the YUAG, the Peabody and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and challenges common perceptions around Native objects. Zordan said that they “want to question the distinction between cultural artifacts and art. Why can’t moccasins that someone spent hours beading be considered art?” Wiles added that the student curators were particularly intentional about hosting the exhibition at the YUAG instead of the Peabody “to get it in the space of an art museum” and “allow these artifacts to be interpreted through a different lens.”
Zordan mentioned how they particularly considered the question of who benefits from this exhibition. They were extremely intentional about not using objects without the consent of their original communities as well as objects with more questionable histories, understanding that some objects were possibly acquired in suspect ways. This exhibition is therefore a way of holding the University and its museums accountable and a way of forcing these institutions to reckon with the histories of the objects they collect and display.
In a Gothic brick and sandstone building on Science Hill, millennia of the world’s natural history — collected from communities all over the world — is on view. Admission is free for Yale students. But as I stood before the Peabody’s displays on that Tuesday morning in March, I ask myself: Who benefits?