25 Jun 2007

Peru versus Yale

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Recent years have seen a tremendous retreat by Reason from the public dialogue, providing a concomitant opportunity for ideologies embodying the worst of mankind’s vices and follies, socialism and nationalism, to take its place. When foreign governments behave contemptibly, asserting irrational and self-aggrandizing claims of ownership to artistic treasures created by civilizations which existed ages before their own time, the leftwing press typically rushes to add its voice in support for yet another contemporary expression of ressentiment.

Refreshingly, Arthur Lubow, in the Sunday Times Magazine, is less than sympathetic to Peru’s attempts to wrest custodianship of artifacts from Manchu Pichu discovered by Yale’s Hiram Bingham in the early years of the last century from the Peabody Museum.

other countries as well as Peru are demanding the recovery of cultural treasures removed by more powerful nations many years ago. The Greeks want the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens from the British Museum; the Egyptians want the same museum to surrender the Rosetta Stone and, on top of that, seek to spirit away the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Where might it all end? One clue comes in a sweeping request from China. As a way of combating plunder of the present as well as the past, the Chinese government has asked the United States to ban the import of all Chinese art objects made before 1911. The State Department has been reviewing the Chinese request for more than two years.

The movement for the repatriation of “cultural patrimony” by nations whose ancient past is typically more glorious than their recent history provides the framework for the dispute between Peru and Yale. To the scholars and administrators of Yale, the bones, ceramics and metalwork are best conserved at the university, where ongoing research is gleaning new knowledge of the civilization at Machu Picchu under the Inca. Outside Yale, most everyone I talked to wants the collection to go back to Peru, but many of them are far from disinterested arbiters. In the end, if the case winds up in the United States courts, its disposition may be determined by narrowly legalistic interpretations of specific Peruvian laws and proclamations. Yet the passions that ignite it are part of a broad global phenomenon. “My opinion reflects the opinion of most Peruvians,” Hilda Vidal, a curator at the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru in Lima, told me. “In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish. Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. It saddens us Peruvians to go to museums abroad and see a Paracas textile. I am hopeful that in the future all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin.” Behind her words, I could imagine a gigantic sucking whoosh, as the display cases in the British Museum, the Smithsonian, the Louvre and the other great universal museums of the world were cleansed of their contents, leaving behind the clattering of a few Wedgwood bowls and Sèvres teacups.

Terry D. Garcia, an ally and enthusiast promoter of Peruvian repatriation claims who works at National Geographic and who has made himself into an active participant in the controversy, was dismissive of Yale’s concerns for the preservation of the artifacts as politically incorrect.

It’s so patronizing of them to suggest that you can’t return these objects to Peru because they can’t take care of them — that a country like Peru doesn’t have competent archaeologists or museums,” he says. “Maybe if you were a colonial power in the 19th century you could rationalize that statement. I don’t see how you could make it today.

But Arthur Lubow describes his own experience with Peruvian standards of stewardship.

Fernando Astete, an archaeologist who has worked at the Machu Picchu park since 1978 and been director of it since 2001, wants the Bingham collection to be exhibited at the site’s museum. When I spoke with him in Cuzco, he said: “I am happy with the museum. It has temperature control and humidity control and guards.” But when I visited the site museum, which is located about a mile and a half from the Aguas Calientes train station, I found evidence of none of those amenities. The doors were open to the air, which was moist from the nearby river, and the sole official was a caretaker who sold tickets and then exited the building.

Read the whole thing.



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