Yale and the Lost City
Recently, there has been an international debate among the museum community and countries. For centuries museums have educated the public on just about everything one can want to know. Within the last two hundred years museums have expanded and enhanced their roles for the public. The term “Art” can be a tricky word to many people. Some see it as a preference but many would agree that any attempt to create something concrete out of imagination or passion for art is in fact art itself (Dean). Every work is unique and many museums look for objects they can use in their many displays. Many abide to a mission statement that has a devotion for the education of the public through exhibits, displays and research. Many bigger museums even have the option of financing their own exhibitions and “digs” in other countries. With permission from other governments, private museums fund “digs” in hopes of collecting items from other cultures for their museums. This situation is usually done with contracts between the museum and the country’s government and it clearly defines the regulations in which items can be removed from the country and even more specifically, who owns them. But what about the items already on display at many museums around the world? Who owns them? And most importantly, do objects have rights?
In many cases, foreign countries will take up lawsuits against museums for their right to have their “cultural heritage” returned to them. Almost everyone in the museum world can agree objects have rights and they do have value in their voice (Brillant). The main focus then becomes who is the one who gets to talk for the objects? For Richard Brillant in “Do Objects Have the Rights”, he posses several theories in which specific individuals take on the responsibility of the rights of an object. For Brilliant the “owner” must keep in mind that there is an:
...assumption that art objects must be preserved and protected...protecting the
artistic patrimony of a nation or culture, empowering certain agencies or individuals
to represent the public, human rights to enjoy continued access to them. (Brillant)
Basically, Brillant advocates that the said “owner” of these precious works of art have the means to preserve them in the best manner. In this way all of mankind will be assured the survival of these essential objects to cultures and the past. Throughout time, the preservation of art only shows the perseverance for the truth and love of knowledge, humankind has embraced since the begins in ancient Greece.
Unmistakably then, “...objects acquire a special aura of worth and...possess properties whose existence and value are recognized,” summarizing the fact that art is preserved because of the value of it now and later on in the future (Brillant). The “value” of these objects can have multiple purposes whether it is for knowledge and education or ascetic and pleasurable means. In this sense, Brillant is suggesting that the well being of the art work comes before the actual fight for the rights of the said object. If two parties lay claim to the object and only one can provide the necessities it needs in order to be on future display they automatically possess the rights and voice for the object over the other claimer.
In fact, many museums have argued that many foreign cultures do not have the necessities to preserve these objects. When lawsuits are first brought against museums, many museum would attack the financing of the country or the condition of their museums. Ultimately, ensuring their soul ownership to the objects without the need for court action. It is only when foreign countries come back with the proper funding and planning for the housing and protection of objects, does a court hearing pursue. Now museums become worried that they may need to return a variety of objects if the proper paperwork is not found or is illegal. In recent decades many countries are calling for a change in the museum world, asking for their objects returned to their country. Court cases between countries and museums have become more common and museums receive daily letters and emails from cultures and groups looking to resort their past customs whether it is through rituals or display in their country's museums. As recently as twentieth century Peru was pursuing a case against Yale University for what Peruvians called their “national treasure.”
The so called “national treasure” was first taken out of Peru in 1911, when an explorer called Hiram Bingham III (Boyd). Bingham was a teacher at Yale University and studied a great deal with Latin American cultures. During one of his many conferences in the western part of South America he started to find pieces to a great mystery. While studying their and talking to locals in Peru, Bingham decided their was enough evidence of a “lost city” somewhere in the mountain tops. After talking to several Peruvian farmers, Bingham sent off in search of this lost culture ([Video Link:] Heaney, Christopher). He continued until he ask one poor farming family and the couple asked their young son to escort Hiram and his travelers to the tops of the mountains ([Video Link:] Heaney, Christopher). Long before they arrived they could see the vast, area with stone buildings and carved mountain sides. Hiram had founded the lost city of Machu Picchu.
When the explorers reached the top of the mountain they were awed by the craftsmanship of the stone building and excited to learn more about this ancient city that was hidden by the clouds for so long.
This is a picture of Machu Picchu that Bingham and his crew
would have first seen while walking up the pathway to the lost city.
Returning from his exciting adventure in Peru, Bingham decided to share his discovery with Yale University. National Geographic also heard the news about Bingham’s lost city and purposed to fund an exhibition to learn more about the ancient Incas. With the president of Peru’s approval, Hiram began his dig in search of tools, pots and other items from the site. He began to collect skeletons and dig up graves ([Video Link:] Heaney, Christopher). Through his agreement with the Peruvian government, Bingham started to catalog and ship the items back to Yale University where they would be studied and put on display.
The contract Bingham signed with the government allowed him to take the objects out of Peru to be studied at Yale University to help gain knowledge about the ancient people who once lived here. The items were to be lent to the University under a two year contract and the objects were then supposed to be returned to the government. Almost one hundred years later the objects were still at Yale University sitting in displays and storage facilities in the United States. A long lawsuit was about to begin.
In court Yale had the advantage and eventually won their case. However, many still felt the object should have been returned because of moral principles. Many student, alumni and staff of Yale University would agree that the objects were suppose to be returned to Peru in the nineteen hundreds and were speaking out against the rights to the objects that Yale University just won in court. The Peruvian government called the object their “treasure” and native people wrote letters and spoke out against Yale University claiming their right to their cultural patrimony. The Peruvian government asked the President of the United States to ask Yale University personally for the objects safe return to their native country (Nutman). I believe that, like Robert Brillant expressed, the safety and preservation of the objects come first. With that being said, Yale University started to overlook the verdict of the case and the eventually decided to go into negotiation with the Peruvian government. Yale promised to return the objects in time for the one hundred year anniversary of Machu Picchu if the government could ensure that the objects would be secure and available for studied among all students both domestic and foreign. As a result the Peruvian set aside funds for a museum and university to be built near Machu Picchu in Cuzco (Nutman). In addition, the museum would be in charge of the future study and past research of the objects found by Bingham. The new museum would be directly connected to Yale University in America. The facility was built and the objects were placed into a secure environment with displays for the public to come explore.
In my opinion giving back the objects was the right thing to do not only because of moral implications that was tarnishing the reputation of Yale but also because the museum was small and the displays had very little variety among the objects. The Peruvians believed they would be gaining ancient treasures of raw metals like gold statues and trinkets.
This is a picture of one of the few pots still intact after Bingham’s exhibition.
Only some items contain silver but, “Mostly everything else is ceramic. Of the more than 5000 pieces in the collection, less than 400 are considered to be of good enough quality to be shown in a museum” (Nutman). Furthermore, Yale University had this collection as a separate part of its University. Yale was not founded to be a museum nor does it have a mission statement that purposes that these objects shouldn’t be returned. In addition, since Yale is not a museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the university displays almost no other exhibits, other countries cannot come after Yale for other objects claiming their cultural patrimony. I would strongly agree with the decision to return these objects. At the end of the say, the Peruvian government and people were fighting for a part of their culture and past. Their need to have national pride through a museum to capture the civilization of Machu Picchu will only help them discover more about their ancestors. In the end the objects led to more information about the past and information can nowadays been communicated easily. In seconds one can learn about another culture or past because these objects were studied and the information can be presented in an educational way to the public.
To recapitulate, cultures do have the right to their national objects if they can prove it was taken illegally or with loans and provide the care for these objects as well. In the Peruvian case it was clear that these objects were sent to Yale by a loan and were to be returned shortly. In opposition to James Cuno who argues against cultural patrimony, if all objects were owned by mankind how could one build and maintain a museum (Cuno). Pieces of displays and exhibitions from your museum would become universal and scattered throughout the world. I would also add, how would humankind take care of these objects since they would be every ones responsibility? And how could one regulate and ensure that the objects are taken care of properly? Saying that all objects people to our race is a beautiful statement that when thought of logically has no meaning. Cuno clearly identifies all the legal aspects of the case and proves that Yale would indeed be the one named for the rights of these objects and their voice. Fortunately, Yale found the right decision and decided to return the objects despite the court hearing.
In the end, either a museum or a country can own the art but only if these objects are truly being taken care of and used for the study of cultures and educational purposes of the public and the world. Yale University had no business holding other cultures items that were to be returned almost a century ago, and this is why the objects should have been and were returned to Peru.
Brillant, Richard, “Do Objects Have Rights,” Art Bulletin, 73, 1991, pp 534-535.
Dean, Carolyn, “The Trouble with (the Term) Art,” Art Journal, 65, 2, Summer, 2006, pp 24-32.
Cuno, James, “Museums, Antiquities, Cultural Property, and the US Legal Framework for Making Acquisitions,” in Who Owns The Past Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and The Law, ed. Kate Fitz Gibbon. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Riding, James, “Repatriation: A Pawnee’s Perspective,” American Indian Quarterly, 20, 1, Spring 1996, pp 238-250.
Peers, Laura, “Native Americans in Museums: A Review of the Chase Manhattan Gallery of North America,” Anthropology Today, 16, 6, December 2000, pp. 8-13.
[Video Link:] Heaney, Christopher, “National Geographic Live: Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu, Lecture, National Geographic Society, August 1, 2011, http://youtu.be/Gdgw8wyh24I.
Boyd, Rachel, “University to return artifacts to Peru,” Yale Daily News, Monday, September 17, 2007.
--------------, “Peru-Yale settlement is a step forward,” Yale Daily News, Monday, September 17, 2007.
Mamis, Noah, “University, not Peru, is best place for cultural treasures,” Yale Daily News, Wednesday, September 19, 2007.
[Audio Link:] Orson, Diane, “Yale Returns Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru,” NPR, December 15, 2010.
Nutman, Sarah, “Returning to Machu Picchu,” Yale Daily News, Monday, February 14, 2011, part 1 of 3.
---------------------, “Digging into Peru deliberations,” Yale Daily News, Tuesday, February 15, 2011, part 2 of 3.
---------------------, “Unpacking artifacts’ future in Peru,” Yale Daily News, Wednesday, February 16, 2011, part 3 of 3.