Yale and Peru agree on artefacts' return

September 28, 2007

Groundbreaking US deal may be a model for the repatriation of other cultural objects. Jon Marcus reports

This month, Yale University agreed with the Government of Peru to return most of the artefacts from the Incan site of Machu Picchu that were uncovered and taken to the US by archaeologist Hiram Bingham almost a century ago. Both parties have hailed the agreement as a model for the repatriation of cultural artefacts worldwide.

"We aim to create a new model for resolving competing interests in cultural property," said Richard Levin, Yale president, who added that museums worldwide were being pressed to return collections to their original homes.

Under its multilayered agreement with Peru, Yale will keep some control over the Bingham finds. It will collaborate on an international travelling exhibition and help build a museum for the collection in Cuzco by 2009. It will also be guaranteed access to most of the pieces for continuing research and, although the university has acknowledged Peruvian ownership, some artefacts will remain at Yale.

Dr Bingham - widely believed to be the inspiration for the character Indiana Jones - set out in 1911 on his second Peruvian expedition, in a quest to find the Incan city of Machu Picchu, which had been largely forgotten and was generally considered a myth. On July 24, 1911, he discovered the abandoned city 8,400ft above sea level. He and his team quickly harvested the site for artefacts.

In all, the Bingham expeditions of 1911, 1912, and 1915 yielded 4,000 items, including mummies and other human remains, which were deposited among the 11 million specimens in Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Machu Picchu became an international tourist destination, and Peru, like other nations, began to bristle over the loss of its cultural objects. It said Dr Bingham had received permission in 1911 to take the artefacts for 18 months, not permanently. And like other internationally renowned museums, the Peabody balked at surrendering them.

But in 2005, the Peruvian Government said it would sue if the objects were not repatriated and serious negotiations ensued.

"It's a win-win," Dean Snow, president of the Society for American Archaeology and a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, said of the deal. "You can see the arguments on both sides - that Yale put a great deal of money and effort into securing those artefacts in the first place; they've been good stewards of those artefacts; and the fact that they were good stewards probably saved those artefacts from being simply plundered from those sites.

"The Peruvians are mindful of that, but this is a world heritage site now and an enormously popular site for tourism, and for tourists to go to Machu Picchu without seeing these artefacts really isn't very fair. Driving to New Haven [Connecticut] to see these artefacts is probably not the first thing that pops into your mind," he added.

Yale is not the only US university museum to face such demands (see box below). Several others are trying to resolve the murky provenance of artworks that changed hands in Europe during the Nazi era. Thousands of American Indian artefacts have been catalogued and are being returned and ceremonially re buried under a 1990 US law.

"It really is a fairly new phenomenon of the past 25 years that countries are taking a look at their cultural heritage and realising this stuff is flying across the border," said Lisa Tremper Hanover, president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries.

There were "no rules" when most of the artefacts were taken, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, she said. "It was finders, keepers, so to speak."

In cases such as this, Dr Snow said, the question was, "What's best for the artefacts themselves?" The answer may depend on whether a country has the facilities to preserve and exhibit such materials.

Ms Hanover said that sometimes the home country did not have the infrastructure to do that. Considering the provision for a new museum in Cuzco, she said: "I absolutely see the Yale-Peru agreement as a model. They're working together for the common good, which is the safety and long-term stewardship of the objects."

Dr Snow added: "If there were not an appropriate facility in Peru, I would guess that the people at Yale would be much more reluctant to agree to the kind of agreement they've just signed."

It's more impressive still that the widely lauded deal involves a university museum, said Ms Hanover, who is also director of the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Unlike independent museums, she said, university museums answered to boards of trustees, alumni and other layers of control.

US university museums no longer keep domestic objects relating to Native American culture. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires them to catalogue and repatriate Indian bones and artefacts, many of which have been reburied and lost to scholarship forever. Even before the law was passed, Stanford University turned over most of its collection to native American tribes.

Harvard's Peabody Museum had 12,000 human skeletal remains from North America, and about 8 million archaeological items from 756 federally recognised tribes. It has returned the bones of 1,912 members of the Pueblo tribe to the southwestern desert, for example, and a Tlingit totem pole to the coast of Alaska.

Dr Snow said that, while repatriation issues such as the Yale-Peru dispute had been around for a couple of decades, reciprocal agreements between associations of professional archaeologists and nations certifying them to do archaeological work in either country had attracted less notice.

There was a sense of loss when objects were returned, US academics and museum administrators said.

Where there was a legitimate claim on an artefact, "we would certainly yield it up", said Alex Barker, director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "But we would hate to do it. These are treasures. Museums are acquisitive. We like to have important collections of major objects. A museum would always like to have the largest and best collections in the world, so repatriation is always something museums approach with mixed feelings."

Ms Hanover said: "Who wants homogeneous museums where they only collect American heritage? It would be a great loss if we had to repatriate a great number of particularly ancient objects."

Dr Snow doubted that would happen: "I really don't think we're going to be seeing a wholesale emptying of museums." Even if the process moved ahead in the coming years, archaeologists could travel more easily than in Hiram Bingham's time, he added.

Nonetheless, said Dr Barker, when conflicts such as the one between Yale and Peru arose, any kind of resolution was welcome.

"The fact that it seems to be a collaborative agreement that encourages research both by American and Peruvian scholars is an important step," he said. "We have no landmarks by which to navigate, so this is a very important agreement simply because it represents an example. Whether it's the ideal model to follow, time is going to tell."


Several other US university museums remain enmeshed in controversies relating to the ownership of items in their collections.

  • Italy asserts ownership of an Athenian red-figure wine cooler and an Apulian loutrophoros (pottery vessel) in the Princeton University Art Museum, which it says were taken illegally. The museum, which has returned a Roman monument, disputes this claim.
  • A group of Americans injured in a terrorist bombing in Israel that was linked to Iran is suing for ownership of some ancient Persian tablets owned by Iran. The group has laid claim to the tablets, which were on extended loan to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, because the Iranian Government won't compensate them for their injuries. The university is fighting the case.
  • Some scholars at New York University are opposing a $200 million gift to pay for a new Institute for the Study of the Ancient World because the money comes from a couple whose private art collection allegedly includes looted artefacts.
  • Several American museums - including those at the universities of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia, and Wyoming - - have found objects in their collections that changed hands during the Nazi era and have questionable provenance.

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