Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Fate of the Machu Picchu Collection

Figure1. Straight Knife with Modeled Fisherman (Burger and Salazar 2004).
Within the field of archaeology, scholars often debate over who owns cultural property and if archaeological material should return to their source country (repatriate).  In this article/post, I plan to further analyze the case of the Yale/Peru agreement that I discussed in my thesis as a comparison to the MFA and the “November Collection”.  I am writing this because I wish to discuss in the future the factors of a successful repatriation that I laid out in the conclusion of my thesis and analyze whether the Yale/Peru agreement challenges the criticisms of repatriation.

The Machu Picchu collection consists of artifacts excavated by Hiram Bingham, who discovered the site in 1911 and conducted expeditions over the next couple of years.  Bingham, with an agreement with the Peruvian government at the time, shipped the artifacts to Yale University for study, and over 90 years, Yale acted as stewards for the collection and displayed some of the pieces in the Yale Peabody Museum.

Below is an excerpt from my thesis briefly discussing the agreement and you can find all citations in my thesis:
In late 2010, Yale agreed to return the Machu Picchu collection to Peru (Yale University 2010). Yale and the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which not only discusses the return of the collection, but also the creation of the UNSAAC-Yale University International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture (Yale University 2011e). The center allows for collaboration between the two parties, allowing for the exchange of information, the creation of a museum exhibit devoted to Machu Picchu and the expeditions in 1911 and 1912, the creation of a storage facility, and a research facility also available to visiting scholars (Yale University 2011e). The exhibition opened just in time to celebrate the centennial celebration of Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu on July 24, 2011 (Yale University 2011f, Heaney 2011). In recognition of Yale’s historic role in the expedition, Peru will allow a small number of artifacts to remain on loan in New Haven (Yale University 2011e).

In November 2012, Yale returned the third and final container of the Machu Picchu collection.  The UNSAAC’s Museo Casa Concha now houses the collection.   

The Museo Casa Concha is a colonial mansion in the heart of Cusco.  The museum has 70 rooms, two levels and four courtyards (qosqo.info).  The museum welcomes visitors with a short video about Hiram Bingham and his discovery of the site of Machu Picchu, and acts as a first stop before taking the trip to the site of Machu Picchu itself (you can see the video below).



Figure 2. Male Gold Figurine (Burger and Salazar 2004).

Figure 3. Gold Beaker in the Form of a Man's Head (Burger and Salazar 2004).














After visiting the Yale Peabody Museum in December 2012 and researching the Museo Casa Concha, the museums exhibitions parallel each other.  Yale now has a small space dedicated to the collection and the original exhibition, highlighting some of the tools, journals, and documents used by Bingham.  

In order to ensure the conservation of the artifacts, Yale advises UNSAAC on maintenance techniques.  The collection from Machu Picchu consists of human remains of 177 people, ceramics, and metal objects among others.  According to El Comercio.pe, as of November 2012, over 70,000 people visited the collection, including Mick Jagger. 



The Repatriation debate:
I discussed the different categories of arguments against repatriation in my thesis below is an excerpt:

Karen J. Warren (1989) breaks down the arguments against repatriation into six categories: rescue, legal claim, world cultural heritage, critiques of import/export restrictions, cultural access and knowledge, and international conventions. The first category argues that many antiquities would have been destroyed if those who had the ability to preserve the antiquity (collectors and museums) did not remove them from their country of origin. Those who rescued the antiquity have rightful ethical claim to the antiquity. The rescue argument does not take into account antiquities taken from relatively stable countries, as well as the possibility that objects in museums can be harmed by flooding or other agents of deterioration. Those who argue the rescue argument believe that source nations do not have the resources to protect cultural property. An example of the rescue argument is the belief Lord Elgin saved the Parthenon Marbles from further destruction that they suffered from centuries the of wars and occupation of Greece (Greenfield 1996).

The second category is that the foreign governments legally removed the cultural property and thus have legal claim. The British Museum uses this argument to justify why it should not return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece (Greenfield 1996; Kersel 2004). The third category is that because antiquity has value for all humanity, it belongs to a world culture, and as a result, no one country can own what belongs to the world, which is the goal of universal museums (Cuno 2008; MacGregor 2009). The fourth category concerns import and export restrictions, and that art acts as a cultural ambassador, and collecting promotes many important values. Artists like Jacob Epstein promoted Pre-Columbian art, which gave it more respect within a western audience.

The fifth category targets the act of returning items, arguing that repatriation restricts cultural access and cultural knowledge. The argument that repatriation will restrict cultural access assumes that less people will see the object in its source country than a large museum in the west. This argument does not take into account the large tourism market where people frequently visit foreign countries. Those argue for the return of the Parthenon marbles stress that millions visit the Parthenon they expect to view the marbles in Athens not in London (Gibbon 2005b).

The sixth category also comments on the UNESCO Convention and other restrictions, suggesting that restrictions and repatriation will only encourage the illicit trade in antiquity. Cuno (2008) argues that looting continues at an increasing rate, which means that these laws do not have an effect. He suspects that looted antiquities go on the black market to private collections in countries that do not respect restrictions, as opposed to through art galleries and museums (2008). Although I am unsure if I agree completely with Cuno, I think that restrictions provide countries with legal opportunities to pursue dealers and looters, as the case with Italy demonstrates.

If we look at the repatriation debate outlined above, the fifth category of arguments directly relates to the current state of the collection, and I pose these questions to my readers:


  • Does the agreement limit public access to the collection?
  • Would more people view the collection at Yale vs. the Museo Casa Concha?  Better worded, do less people visit the collection now that it is in Peru? 


  • Figure 5. Aryballos (Burger and Salazar 2004).
    Figure 6. Lime Spoon (Burger and Salazar 2004).
    Figure 4. Silver Tupu (Burger and Salazar 2004).

More thoughts and analysis to come, this is an ongoing project for me.


Some citations

Figure 7. Paccha Showing a Hand Grasping a Qero (Burger and Salazar 2004).
















Some citations

Burger, Richard L., and Lucy C. Salazar 2004 Catalogue. In Machu Picchu : Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas. Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar, eds. Pp. 125-218. New Haven: Yale University Press.