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Machu Picchu, Yale, and the world stage

"In the Wonderland of Peru"

Published on 16 December 2010

Author(s): Art News/Robin Cembalest

Type:  News

Yale university joins the club of elite institutions that have, in recent years, repatriated antiquities

The fact that Peru is now celebrating the centennial of Hiram Bing­ham's first trip to Machu Picchu speaks volumes about its conflicted relationship with the Yale University professor and explorer. After his return to the site to excavate, in 1912, Bingham brought the fabulous Inca ruins to the world stage, documenting the dig with cutting-edge Kodak cameras he had wheedled from George Eastman. The photos formed the basis for his special-edition National Geographic story in early 1913, "In the Wonderland of Peru."

But Bingham was also an arrogant colonialist who—according to the case the Republic of Peru filed against Yale in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in 2008—failed to send back the objects he had taken after studying them, as he had promised to do. Fol­low­ing nearly a century of diplomatic sparring, legal posturing, and self-­righteous squabbling, three years ago the university offered to return the museum-quality objects to Peru for exhibition, while detaining human remains, potsherds, and other less crowd-friendly items for further study in New Haven. Peru wasn't having it. Taking a page from Egyptian antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, president Alan García did his best to try the case on the world stage, soliciting support at the Vatican, the White House, and the New York City Mara­thon, where runners posed in pro-repatriation T-shirts. At home, Peruvians marched in the streets.

When Yale finally agreed last November to repatriate everything from the 1912 dig, the university didn't abandon its longtime, highly technical legal defense. It said the gesture was "an expression of good will."

In losing the Bingham collection, the university joins the club of elite institutions that have, in recent years, repatriated antiquities to claimants able to muster the right combination of legal evidence, media attention, moral authority, and/or diplomatic heft. Stolen objects still turn up in the best places. The same month Yale and Peru came to terms, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it was returning to Egypt 19 objects recently identified as coming from King Tut's tomb that had been in its collections for decades—­illegally, as the museum acknowledged.

There is no doubt that restitutions will continue. Is there really any doubt that encyclopedic museums will survive? It seems more interesting to see antiquities restitutions not as an emptying out of Western museums but as part of a larger trend—the reverse migration of objects, from the West to the regions and cultures from which they came, along with the flow of Western art to new centers of power. The emerging museum districts in the Arabian Gulf are part of this movement. But creating a narrative that responds to globalism in these new venues is trickier than it was in the Eurocentric, relatively tiny Guggenheim Bilbao. Indeed, according to Nicolai Ourous­soff's recent report in the New York Times, the template for Abu Dhabi's Guggenheim championed by its creator, Thomas Krens, is being de-Westernized by his successor, Richard Armstrong.

A bone shawl pin adorned with two birds, one of the Inca artifacts unearthed in Hiram Bingham's 1912 excavation at Machu Picchu..jpg
A bone shawl pin adorned with two birds, one of the Inca artifacts unearthed in Hiram Bingham's 1912 excavation at Machu Picchu (YALE PEABODY MUSEUM, NEW HAVEN)

Costa Rica is also expecting a major transfer of objects—at least 3,000 antiquities, mostly ceramics and stonework—from the Brooklyn Museum. In this case, no one ever disputed the museum’s ownership of the objects, which were originally exported by railroad-and-banana magnate Minor Cooper Keith. The problem has been to identify facilities in the home country with the capacity to store and research them, along with the funds to pack and ship them.

It's a matter of debate whether scholars who worry about danger to repatriated objects are expressing lingering colonialism or realism, albeit reluctant. While Bingham himself was a reflection of his times in his treatment of native people as well as objects, he was obsessive in recording and documenting his finds. So even if Cuzco lacks the CSI-like DNA-decoding technology possible in New Haven, Machu Picchu's bones, wherever they are, can continue to reveal their secrets.

That is not the case with some of the bodies buried in the elaborate tomb of a Moche king, known as the Lord of Sipán, which was discovered by looters in 1987. As our London correspondent Roger Atwood recounted, it took a massive effort to secure and excavate the site, whose contents now fill the stunning Museo Tumbas Reales del Señor de Sipán, in Peru's northern coast city of Lambayeque.

But much was destroyed by the ­looters—further evidence that the threat to future archeology is less in Western museums than in the field, not only from looting but from environmental hazards and excessive tourism. As Machu Picchu celebrates the centennial of Bingham's first visit, archeologists are questioning how much more traffic the ruin can absorb. The World Monuments Fund put the site on its 2010 Watch List, citing the lack of "integrated and sustainable management strategies" despite a decade of warnings.

Closer to home, Inca studies are moving in new directions. As Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History began preparing to deaccession its Machu Picchu objects, a major pre-Columbian collection was reinstalled in the new Art of the Americas wing at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Here, Inca tradi­tional forms do not end definitively with Pizarro's arrival in Peru in 1524, but interweave with styles from Europe, Africa, and Asia in the colonial-art galleries. And in fall 2011 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open an ambitious exhibition exploring how pre-Hispanic cul­tural traditions continued after the Conquest, and how indigenous people were portrayed in colonial art. Though most scholars agree that Machu Picchu was a royal estate, no one knows why its residents left, or where they went. Just as much as any museum or research institute, the LACMA ­exhibition is a way to showcase their legacy.


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