Negotiations between Yale University and the Peruvian Government over the return of Yale’s collection of Machu Picchu artifacts took a turn for the worse this past June. The normally staid leading newspaper, El Comercio, began its article reporting the latest news on the negotiations in this way: “The blonde Barbara Shailor, one of five Associate Deans of Yale and in charge of the University’s diverse museums, doesn’t walk a square meter without her favorite bag. It’s not any bag. It’s a cloth bag that has embroidered on it a picture of the most beautiful Inca city in the world. The anecdote could well hide a malicious metaphor: Yale doesn’t want to let go of Machu Picchu.” Whenever a Yale Associate Dean is caricatured as a blonde clutching onto her shopping bag, you know things are about to get nasty.
Previous to this, the two sides had reached an amicable agreement, formalized in a Memorandum of Understanding. That MOU, according to the Yale Alumni Magazine, provided that, “about 350 museum-quality objects would be returned quickly to Peru, while the vast majority of the material could remain at Yale for study purposes for up to 99 years.” But the Peruvian government has since backed away from the terms of the MOU, in part because of what they understand to be inaccuracies in Yale’s inventory of the artifacts, and in part because they have changed their position on the need to return the entire collection to Peru. This change in position comes after a public outcry when the terms of the agreement were published earlier this year, where a variety of Peruvians, from a former First Lady, to academics, to local officials in Cuzco, urged the government to demand that all of the pieces be returned to Peru.
The Machu Picchu artifacts touch a long-standing nationalist nerve within Peru, if not all of Latin America, yet such heady emotions may lead to an outcome far from ideal for Peru and those Peruvians who benefit from the burgeoning tourist trade associated with the site.
HIRAM BINGHAM AND THE DISCOVERY OF MACHU PICCHU
The relics themselves made their way to Yale by way of the ancient site’s modern scientific discoverer, Hiram Bingham, a Yale graduate, who would later become a Yale professor. The simple characterization of Bingham as the site’s “discoverer” can arouse passion in some Peruvians, as it is clear that a variety of Peruvians had visited the site before him. This includes, of course, the young Indian boy who led Bingham to the site, the landowner, Melchor Arteaga, who told Bingham about the site and led him to the vicinity, but also somewhat more academically-minded Peruvians such as Don Enrique Palma who left an inscription on the site in 1902.
Although it is widely accepted that there were many visitors to Machu Picchu prior to Hiram Bingham, it is also true that some of these fell into the long tradition of Peruvian grave robbers or huaqueros and antiquities dealers in Peru. In my own visit to Machu Picchu, my Peruvian guide gave what could be an admirably balanced account of the site’s discovery: “it was indeed discovered by non-Indian Peruvians…,” he told us, “…who then proceeded to sack artifacts from the site.” A fair assessment of Bingham’s role is to call him, as the plaque at the site does, “the scientific discoverer” of Machu Picchu.
Bingham was not himself an archeologist, but rather an explorer, yet he had the education and institutional resources to recognize important discoveries and connect them to those who could properly study them. Hugh Thompson, a British explorer of Inca ruins in the present day, devotes several pages in his book, “The White Rock” to Bingham’s contribution. He makes the point that Bingham disingenuously downplays the contributions of others before him to highlight his own role, yet Thompson recognizes that, “his achievement-and it was a considerable one-was in publicizing that discovery and his many later finds.” (page 80)
More specifically, Bingham’s success was not only in connecting the scientific and academic communities to the site, but in connecting to the average reader through articles in National Geographic and books. He is a master adventure story teller and his enthusiasm in discovering the site is infectious, as told in his account in his book,”The Lost City of the Incas”:
To my astonishment, I saw that this wall and the adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the far-famed Temple of the Sun in Cuzco. Surprise followed surprise in bewildering succession. I climbed a marvelous great stairway of large granite blocks, walked along a pampa where the Indians had a small vegetable garden, and came into a little clearing. Here were the ruins of two of the finest structures I have ever seen in Peru. Not only were they made of selected blocks of beautifully grained white granite; their walls contained ashlar of Cyclopean size, ten feet in length, and higher than a man. The site held me spellbound. (The Peru Reader, p88)
A NATIONALIST CAUSE
It should come as no surprise that the same fervor the site inspired in Hiram Bingham, would be repeated in the many visitors to follow. The site became something of a Latin American nationalist touchstone. In the 40’s, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda visited the site and wrote the poem, “The Heights of Machu Picchu.” He described the visit as a soulful reawakening in the midst of creative doldrums, “a profession of faith in order to continue with my song.” (The White Rock, p 77)
In 1955, Che Guevara visited the ruins during his motorcycle tour of the continent (recently portrayed in the movie “Motorcycle Diaries”), writing famously that Machu Picchu, “drives any dreamer to ecstasy.” For him, Machu Picchu represented the purity of pre-Colombian genius, before being sullied by the Conquest: “The undeniable thing, the most important thing, is that we have before us a pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas, untouched by contact with the conquering civilization” he later wrote. (The White Rock, p 96)
Guevara foreshadows the current controversy by asking 50 years ago: “Where can one admire or study the treasures of the indigenous city [Machu Picchu]? The answer is obvious: in the museums of the United States.” In short, the removal of the site’s artifacts to Yale touches a raw nerve for Peruvians and Latin Americans in general: if Machu Picchu represents the maximum expression of the country’s and continent’s native genius, then it must belong fundamentally to, and be kept within, Peru. When seen through this lens, the only solution to the current dilemma is that the artifacts must be returned. As Peru’s former First Lady, Eliana Karp Toledo argues in a February 23 editorial in The New York Times, “I fail to understand the rationale for Yale to have any historical claim to the artifacts. Bingham had no authority to transfer ownership to begin with. The agreement reflects a colonial way of thinking not expected from a modern academic institution. In fact, Yale has gone a step further than it did in its negotiations with President Toledo; the university is now brazenly asking to keep a significant part of the collection for research for an additional 99 years.”
A NEW ROLE FOR YALE?
The role that Hiram Bingham played nearly one hundred years ago holds important clues to the respective roles Yale and the Peruvian state might play in an ideal outcome to the controversy. But, to understand what that outcome might be, it is important to establish an accurate context regarding Peru, Machu Picchu, and the artifacts themselves in 2008.
First, it is not clear that the goals of artifact preservation or exhibition of the artifacts for the Peruvian general public would be best served with the artifacts managed directly by the Peruvian government. Most would agree that the best pre-Colombian collections and museums in Peru are in private hands. The Museo Larco and Museo de Oro, both in Lima, are excellent examples of such museums. Both, incidentally, charge market rates to see their collections-over $10 per person for either Peruvian or foreign visitors-and as a result, buses filled with foreign tourists, not school buses with local schoolchildren, are what one sees in the parking lot. This implies that the Peruvian government has not historically been very successful in protecting artifacts from market forces (e.g., grave robbing), nor in obtaining artifacts for their own collections. It also implies that the importance placed by the Peruvians on repatriating the artifacts is more symbolic than practical. If accessibility to the Peruvian general public and researchers were the issue, then there are hundreds of thousands of artifacts sitting right in Lima equally as inaccessible as those in the United States.
Government run museums do charge affordable entry fees, however, most do not own as impressive collections, nor are they displayed in environments that are as attractive and well managed as the private museums. The Regional Museum in Ica exemplifies this issue. While, in fact, the museum contains valuable and impressive pre-Colombian textiles from the Paracas and Nazca cultures, it has recently been the victim of robberies. Thieves simply broke the glass protecting textiles, worth over $40,000, and ran out of the museum. As a result, visitors today see only poor color photocopies of the most valuable pieces.
Second, tourism to Machu Picchu and Peru, in general, is booming today. Peruvian government statistics show that the number of foreign tourists arriving in Peru nearly doubled in the six year period between 2002 and 2007, from 997 thousand to 1.8 million. Many of these visitors went to Machu Picchu itself; statistics on entries into Machu Picchu National Park show that between 1997 and 2007, the number of visitors to Machu Picchu increased between two and three times, from 297 thousand to 737 thousand. Those visitors spend hundreds and often thousands of dollars in both Cuzco and Lima-to date, no international flights arrive in Cuzco and so visitors must stay a night in Lima-generating tens of thousands of jobs.
Third, foreign visitors trips to Machu Picchu are not inexpensive. While decades ago, in the days of Shining Path attacks and heavy coca cultivation, Cuzco and Machu Picchu might have attracted only adventurous backpackers, today that situation could not be more different. An anecdotal survey of tour buses in downtown Cuzco shows a wealthy, often retired crowd, with a high degree of interest in history and culture as explained by guides with a good grasp of the subject matter. Such visitors would probably put much value on Yale’s association with a museum or any aspect of a Machu Picchu visit.
Finally, the actual artifacts are rather underwhelming. As the El Comercio article describes them: “[a] material that, frankly, would dishearten any compatriot that, after all of the media pyrotechnics, might have believed that Yale hides the most precious treasure of the Inca kingdom. Nothing could be further from the truth.” A Peruvian archeologist associated with Yale downplayed, in the same article, the artifacts’ research value as well, saying that most researchers would prefer to perform research on pieces they themselves had excavated, not those excavated 100 years ago.
In summary, the real golden idol in this story is not so much the artifacts per se, but the growing trade and economic opportunities created by the thousands of wealthy tourists descending on Peru to visit Machu Picchu. With the site recently becoming the “it” destination for the well-to-do, it is clear that Peru has much to gain from as extensive an involvement as it can negotiate with Yale regarding Machu Picchu. For instance, some simple ideas come to mind:
- Can Yale sponsor traveling exhibitions of the artifacts to “push” more visitors to the site from the United States and Europe?
- Can Yale provide technical assistance to create a first class archeological museum in Cuzco or the Sacred Valley (such a museum does not currently exist) that would become one more “required stop” on the average tourist’s Cuzco trip?
- Can Yale’s association with any part of a Machu Picchu trip be used as a lever to publicize more trips to Machu Picchu among Yale or Ivy League alumni?
- Can Peru bring more Yale researchers to Peru to help carry out and fund current archeological research?
In the context of the gamut of possibilities for collaboration, the sole focus on ownership and physical possession of the artifacts seems short-sighted. The artifacts should be considered the happy accident that caused the paths of two highly complementary parties to cross and from which emerges a productive partnership.
Hiram Bingham’s first visit to Machu Picchu nearly 100 years ago was the watershed event to announce the existence of the Inca citadel to the rest of the world. Today, Yale’s involvement can serve a similar role in adding intellectual and academic gravitas to Machu Picchu as a tourist destination. The importance of Bingham was not about discovery per se, but rather publicizing the site worldwide to scientific and international audiences. Similarly today, the importance of the Yale-Peru link via the artifacts is not about ownership and possession per se, but again about dissemination of the site to the world’s tourists and other visitors, who have the potential to help Peru create jobs and reduce poverty.