Updated: Nov 7, 2019
Many like to think that as a society, we are far removed from colonial times when Christopher Columbus first claimed to have “found” a new world. However, this is completely untrue, as the consequences of colonial encounters continue to snake into our daily life. Particularly in the world of art and artifacts, where culture is closely tied to the artifacts created by a group of people. This is the case in Peru, where Machu Picchu silently watches over a multitude of remaining indigenous groups now mixed with tourists.
Machu Picchu was excavated by American Archaeologists Hiram Bingham in 1912. Three expeditions were funded by Yale University, where Bingham was a professor of history, and by the National Geographic Society. From 1911 until 1915, Bingham had the legal permission of the Peruvian Government to use Peruvian resources for the excavations. Bingham also gained permission from the Peruvian government to transport artifacts to Yale for further research. More than 4,000 artifacts were shipped to the US on an 18-month loan. However, by 1918, none of the artifacts had been returned.*
The Peruvian government continued through the 1900s to make restitution requests to ensure that the artifacts were returned to their rightful place at Machu Picchu. In 2007, the Peruvian government finally decided to take legal action and sued Yale University, although the case was quickly dismissed by the Washington DC District Courts. In the process, though, the Peruvian government achieved something important, they brought the issue into the light and caught international attention. After much deliberation from the university (and threats of donors withdrawing money if the artifacts were not returned), Yale and the Peruvian government reached an agreement.* The artifacts were to be completely returned by the end of 2012, and a new organization, The Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco- Yale University International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture, was to be formed. Under this agreement, the artifacts would be returned to Peru and displayed in the San Antonio Abad University, where Yale researchers would still have unlimited access to them.***
"Whether they're the Mediterranean countries with Greek and Roman classical objects, whether they're the Latin countries with Aztec, Mayan and Inca ruins, the current trend seems to be leaning towards the source countries and helping them reclaim objects that were taken when they had less power."**
Although the result of this agreement between Yale and Peru seems to be a win-win, it portrays a dangerous precedent. Yes, the artifacts were returned to their place of origin, but without an acknowledgment of the underlying problem of why they were taken in the first place: a colonial “betterness” on part of Bingham. Many other restitution cases like this one are not so lucky to have reached an agreement such as this. Pick any Encyclopedic museum, a museum that boast artifacts from all over the world, and it is almost guaranteed that in their collection is a myriad of stolen, looted, or unethically obtained artifacts. The issue here remains that artifacts taken since the period of colonization still remain in countries in which they do not belong, and those countries are not acknowledging the horrid role they played in these colonial issues. How can one venture into a museum hoping to learn about a particular thing, when the violent histories of these objects and how they came to be in the museum is not being acknowledged? This case with Yale University is a perfect example of why museums must commit to doing a better job at how they function as institutions of education, as opposed to a business trying to maximize profit. They returned the objects, but only after big donors threatened to stop the money from rolling in. They are refusing to acknowledge the role they played in perpetuating a colonial mindset, even years after the supposed colonial period has ended.
So we must question, has colonialism really ended at all?
*Peru-Yale Partnership for the Future of Machu Picchu Artifacts.” YaleNews, 15 Feb. 2018, https://news.yale.edu/2015/06/04/peru-yale-partnership-future-machu-picchu-artifacts.
**Orson, Diane. “Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru.” NPR, NPR, 18 Dec. 2011, www.npr.org/2012/01/01/143653050/finders-not-keepers-yale-returns-artifacts-to-peru.
***Alderman, and Kimberly. “Yale's Repatriation of the Machu Picchu Artifacts to Peru.” SSRN, 18 Feb. 2014