October 21, 2010

When will Yale University return Peru’s artefacts?

Posted at 9:19 pm in Similar cases

Three years ago, the government of Peru & Yale University signed an agreement for the return of various artefacts. At the time, it was seen by many as the sort of agreement that could act as a template for many other restitution cases around the world. The reality is though that three years later, not artefacts have yet returned from Yale.

Patriot News

Who owns the past? Peru, Yale University are debating
Published: Saturday, August 28, 2010, 3:24 PM
HEATHER LONG, The Patriot-News

I returned this week from the South American nation of Peru, a country best known for its Inca ruins such as Machu Picchu.

As an American, I half-expected to get questions from Peruvians about Arizona’s new immigration law or better yet about William Trickett Smith, the Harrisburg-area native recently extradited to Peru for charges of killing his wife in the capital city of Lima.

Neither issue came up. Instead a consistent theme that surfaced time and again from Peruvians was: When will Yale University return our artifacts?

The ongoing saga dates to 1911. Hiram Bingham, an anthropology professor from Yale, was in Peru studying the indigenous cultures of the Andes.

The tale Peruvians tell is that Bingham encountered a farmer not far from Machu Picchu (which literally means “old mountain”) who told him about the ruins.

Bingham managed to make it up the 8,000-foot mountain to rediscover the nearly intact Inca city that so many tourists come from all over the world to see today.

Immediately realizing that he had struck “anthropological gold,” Bingham brought a crew from Yale and the National Geographic Society to excavate the site.

They dug for several years. Black and white pictures of Bingham — sometimes cited as a model for Indiana Jones — and his team are on display in the only hotel and restaurant on the mountain. A Peruvian highway also is named after Bingham, among other tributes

Surprisingly, they found little gold or silver, which the Incas, who ruled the area from the 1400s through the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, were famous for. But they did find thousands of trinkets of everyday life: utensils, bowls, grinding stones, urns, weaving equipment, etc.

Peru granted the National Geographic Society permission to take all of these objects to the U.S. on a short-term loan.

The collection landed at Yale University’s Peabody Museum. The idea was for scholars from the U.S. to appropriately catalogue and clean the items and then return them to Peru.

Nearly 100 years later, the items remain at the Peabody Museum.

Of course, this is not a unique phenomenon to Peru. Many national treasures from the developing world have ended up in museums in Europe and the U.S. (not to mention in private collections, sometimes illegally).

Perhaps the most famous case is the “Elgin Marbles,” statues taken from Greece’s Acropolis in the early 1800s. Since then, they have been on display in the British Museum in London.

For years, Greece has demanded the return of the statues, but to no avail.

The defense most large museums give is that developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to preserve these treasures appropriately.

For many years that was true, but as the Bob Dylan adage goes, “the times they are a changin’.”

Take Peru, for example. The country has seen a stable political environment and solid economic growth since the mid-1990s. Tourism is now one of its largest industries, and the nation has responded by building numerous hotels, restaurants, roads, railways and yes, museums.

I visited the museum at the base of Machu Picchu (Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon). It contains several hundred artifacts that Peruvian anthropologists and archaeologists found in the late 1990s when another part of Machu Picchu was excavated that Bingham did not touch.

The items are kept in climate-controlled cases. There are security cameras and guards throughout the building. TV display boards and colorful exhibits tell the stories of the Inca civilization.

In other words, it looks and feels just like a modern American museum. The same can be said of many museums I visited in the larger cities of Lima and Cusco.

For its part, Yale has publicly stated its intent to reach an “amicable resolution” with Peru. As recently as two years ago, it was negotiating a memorandum of understanding with Peru’s president for the return of at least the “museum quality” artifacts. Unfortunately, those talks broke down with Peru believing there were too many conditions. Yale did not respond to inquiries for this article.

At the moment, the issue is stuck in court. Peru filed a lawsuit in 2008 demanding the immediate return of all artifacts.

It’s time that Yale returned these items to Peru. There is no question they belong to the people of Peru, and the nation is ready and able to put them on display for locals and foreigners to enjoy and continue studying.

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