Yale University Machu Picchu artifacts

In 1912 an expedition co-sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society under the leadership of Hiram Bingham III exported from Peru several thousand artifacts that had been recovered during excavations of more than 100 cave burials at the site of Machu Picchu. The artifacts were deposited at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Bingham had first visited Machu Picchu in 1911, and he was back in 1915 at the head of another expedition, which exported additional material from excavations at other sites. Again, it was taken to Yale.

In January 2003, the Peabody Museum opened its exhibition “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”, heralded as one of the largest exhibitions ever organized by the Peabody and the largest on the Incas ever held in the United States. The 1912 expedition’s artifacts were central to the exhibition, along with photographs of the expedition and other memorabilia. The exhibition closed at Yale in May 2003 and embarked on a two-year tour of the United States, including stops at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and Chicago’s Field Museum, returning to Yale in 2006. The exhibition tour is reported to have attracted more than one million visitors.

Preparations for the exhibition attracted the attention of the then Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo, who claimed Peruvian ownership of the Bingham material and started lobbying for its return. An initial meeting between Peru and Yale held in 2002 to resolve the issue proved inconclusive. Follow-up negotiations were equally unsuccessful and in 2006 Peru announced it would go to court, though this decision was not followed through, perhaps because of a change of president in Peru.

There were two main points of dispute. One was ownership, the other was what material Yale actually held. Yale claimed ownership under the Peruvian Civil Code of 1852 (D. Harman, 2006, Peru wants Machu Picchu artifacts returned’, USA Today, January 6), and in a statement to the New York Times, Yale said that “Bingham understood that he had the right to keep the objects from 1912 in New Haven for research, and that he fulfilled his obligations’ (H. Eakin, ‘Inca show pits Yale against Peru’, February 1). But Bingham’s son and biographer Alfred Bingham, who had access to Bingham’s papers, states that Bingham’s permit allowed the Peruvian government the “right to ‘exact the return’ of all unique specimens and duplicates of all others” (A.M. Bingham, 1989, Portrait of an Explorer, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 287). The National Geographic Society agrees that the material was only allowed out of Peru on loan. Yale stated that it had in its possession about 250 museum quality pieces, and about 5,000 other pieces, though nothing made of precious metal. Yale also claimed to have returned the material from the 1915 expedition in 1922. ((D. Harman, 2006, Peru wants Machu Picchu artifacts returned’, USA Today, January 6). The National Geographic records about half of the 1915 artifacts going back. Peru says only some boxes of bones were returned. Alfred Bingham records seeing several storage cases holding bones and potsherds in Peru’s National Museum in 1968 (A.M. Bingham, 1989, Portrait of an Explorer, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 310).

In May 2007, Yale offered to return the “museum quality” pieces excavated by Bingham and to help build a new museum at Machu Picchu for their curation and display, and Peru agreed to resume negotiations. In September 2007, Yale announced the agreement of a “model collaboration”, by which Yale and Peru would co-sponsor an international tour of the Machu Picchu exhibition, including additional pieces loaned by the Peru, and co-curated by Yale and Peru’s National Institute of Culture. After the tour, the exhibition would be installed in a new museum and research center in Cusco, built with funding raized through the exhibition. Yale would acknowledge Peru’s title to all excavated artifacts. The material would be formally returned to Peru in late 2009, with the Peabody retaining possession of a “research collection” of more fragmentary material (Joint statement by the Government of Peru and Yale University, September 14, 2007). By November 2007, however, the agreement had still not been finalized.