Controversies USA

Machu Picchu collection is Peru-bound

Ending a long-standing fued, Yale says it will return artefacts to Peru as a gesture of "good will"

Machu Picchu

NEW HAVEN. After a lawsuit initiated by Peru and an acrimonious high-level public battle, Yale University has signed an agreement Peru that will result in the return this year to Peru of some 5,000 artefacts taken a century ago from Machu Picchu. The objects were carted off by the American explorer Hiram Bingham III (1875-1956), and have since been in the possession of Yale University’s Peabody Museum. While Yale officials have long claimed the right to keep the objects, Peru has maintained that Bingham failed to abide by an agreement to return the collection.

The accord, reached on 11 February between Yale and the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC), builds upon a memorandum of understanding struck in late 2010 and establishes the UNSAAC-Yale International Centre for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture in Casa Concha, an Incan palace in the centre of Cusco. The objects will be housed at a specially designed facility in Cusco with exhibits planned to mark the centenary of the “scientific discovery” of the Incan site and on the 1911-1912 Yale-Peruvian Scientific Expeditions. An exhibition of the most important works of the Machu Picchu collection is planned later this year at museums in Lima and Cusco.

“The collection is not being returned within a framework of a repatriation,” said Richard Burger, a Yale University professor, archaeologist and curator of the Machu Picchu Collection. “The agreement is that Yale is returning [the collection] in recognition of the unique role that they have for the Peruvian people and Peruvian identity,” he said. Burger hopes that the agreement will be a milestone in international archaeological restitution cases, and that the resulting academic, scientific and institutional outcomes could be emulated in similar situations.

The agreement brings to a close a sparring match between Peru and Yale University which came to a head in late 2010 when the highest levels of the Peruvian government centered their attacks on Yale. While Peru claimed that the objects were lent to Yale to be studied and were never returned, Yale continued to insist that it had the right to keep them under agreements Bingham made with the Peruvian government when he excavated Machu Picchu. Ire in Peru had brewed for several years and an earlier memorandum of understanding between the parties fizzled in 2007. Peru filed a lawsuit for the return of objects that include ceramic Inca pottery, pots and pedestals, ground-stone tools, metalwork’s and effigies. The public jousting escalated late last year when the Peruvian president Alan Garcia lead marches in Lima and Cusco, and made personal appeals to US President Barack Obama. A feisty Garcia publicly accused the American university of outright “robbery”, and unilaterally set a deadline for mid-2011 for the return of the objects.

“I think gradually both sides realised that the courts weren’t the best venue to decide this,” said Burger, adding: “Maybe there was a concern that even if Yale were to win the case it would still be a point of political contention, so it wouldn’t be completely resolved.” Yale University, in returning the objects, stresses that it is being done not as a repatriation, but as, “an expression of good will and in recognition of the unique importance that Machu Picchu has come to play in the identity of the modern Peruvian nation”.

In the lead-up to the agreement, the number of objects housed at Yale also became a contentious issue. In 2008 a Peruvian delegation visited Yale and found 40,000 objects instead of the 4,000 they believed in the university's collection. Yale maintained that the discrepancy was in the methodology of counting. Fury over the discrepancy lead to further distrust, and a hardening of the Peruvian position, culminating in Peru's insistence that the objects be returned, without conditions. “These discrepancies were simply a function of different counting methodologies,” says Burger, adding: “Where we would count several hundred bones as one individual because it came from a single skeleton, [another] inventory might have each individual bone of a finger counted as an object in itself.” Burger said that when the detailed inventories were compared there was no significant difference. “This is something that was blown out of proportion by some people for political reasons,” he said.

Andrew Princz

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Comments

31 Mar 11
16:16 CET

HERNANDO CORTEZ-ROCHAS, WYNCHESTRE

Absolutely thrilled to bits and now want to visit Peru again this year to try and go and see some of these exhibits. Yes I would have not never ever gone to the States to see these wonderful items of Human craft... So my point Yale was right to relinquish. MHCR.

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