NOVEMBER 27, 2006
As a great-grandson of Hiram Bingham, my natural inclination is to defend his record and the right of Yale University to hold onto their legally obtained excavations. Christopher Heaney, however, does a nearly perfect job of causing me to see both sides of the repatriation issue ("Bonesmen," October 23). Heaney paints a fair portrait of a man with both considerable accomplishments (pioneering university recognition of Latin American studies and rediscovering Machu Picchu) and conflicted ambitions (respecting Peruvian sovereignty early in his career then submitting to Teddy Roosevelt's updated Monroe Doctrine later in his career). Nevertheless, Heaney misses one crucial issue. In my own travels to Machu Picchu and the Cuzco region, I was surprised to hear locals express to me their appreciation for Yale's role in protecting their own artifacts. Many Cuzco residents, especially those who identified more as Quechan (the local indigenous culture) than Peruvian, told me they were saddened by how frequently much of what had been left behind had been looted, both inside and outside of official Peruvian museums. Perhaps the anti-Yale, anti-American manipulation of this issue by former President Toledo and both candidates in the recent presidential election isn't an attitude as widely held as the politicians would have you believe. Not only have many members of my family--who, like me, do not mention our relation to Bingham--heard this appreciation for the role Yale has played since 1911, but many other travelers to the region have shared with me similar accounts of local opinion. While this evidence is certainly anecdotal and perhaps biased (a potential tip to a guide or a restaurateur might be as strong an incentive as any for pro-Bingham/Yale remarks), I do believe there is an extralegal case to be made that Yale has earned the right to share the artifacts with the country of their origin. No doubt this issue has been raised by the Met with regard to the Euphronios Krater or the J. Paul Getty Museum and St. Louis Art Museum in their own disputes. But, in the case of Bingham, Yale, and Peru, given the history of Peruvian neglect, doesn't protection of the artifacts for the better part of a century merit consideration in the final resolution? Perhaps I am succumbing to the very same "exceptionalism" that my great-grandfather embodied when he brought the antiquities to the United States in the first place. Unlike him, I do not have the benefit of the spirit of the times. Quite the contrary, given recent similar disputes, I have no doubt Peru will win back their treasures. But some consideration must be given to the positive role Yale and Bingham have played in preserving the actual artifacts and inspiring respect for Incan civilization worldwide.
CHRISTOPHER HEANEY RESPONDS:
I don't think Yale is in any danger-- nor should it be--of losing full credit for the positive role it played in the revelation and excavation of Machu Picchu.Likewise, many Peruvians are able to see the complexity of what Bingham did in his university's name. But Yale's Peabody Museum should not be judged solely on the Machu Picchu collection. An examination of the curation of Bingham's larger Peruvian collection, in fact, suggests that we should reconsider our assumption that artifacts are always better off in a U.S., or Western, museum. For example--Yale's repeated refusal to honor its agreement to return the Machu Picchu artifacts aside--the Peabody claimed it had honored an agreement to return artifacts excavated from other Incan sites in 1914-1915. My article pointed out that the university's online catalogue in fact listed artifacts from a number of sites--including the last capital of the Incas--that Yale excavated from that period and that, therefore, should have been returned. Apparently, that was too much scrutiny of the Peabody's Peruvian collection. The weekend before "Bonesmen" hit newsstands, the Peabody removed those artifacts from its online catalogue. Yale's public affairs officer claims they were removed in the process of reviewing the Peabody's problematic catalogue. In all scenarios, this suggests that Yale's curation of its Peruvian collection is deeply flawed. In a best-case scenario--in which we take Yale's word at face value--its inventory of the Peruvian collection claimed thousands of artifacts that hadn't been at the Peabody for over 80 years, which hardly seems like responsible museum management. And, in a worst-case scenario, the inventory was right, the artifacts are still at Yale, and the museum's removal of their presence online--which happened once before, with the Machu Picchu artifacts--is an attempt to cover up a serious lapse in the collection's ethical responsibilities. Either way, as this year's scandals at the Getty and the Met also suggest, it's high time that we retire the bromide that "native" countries are corrupt and care little about their past and that Western countries and their museums care more about culture than the "native" countries that produced it. Whenever laws or agreements are broken in the name of art or science, the moral high ground is lost, which in turn makes it harder and harder for Western scientists and museum curators to work in other countries without facing similar accusations. For that reason alone--as much as to clear Yale's historical conscience--the Machu Picchu artifacts should be returned.
This article originally ran in the November 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.