U.Va. Brings Scholars, Students Together to Discuss Cultural Heritage and Preservation

May 6, 2008 — In 1911, Yale professor Hiram Bingham returned from his Yale Peruvian Expedition claiming to have rediscovered the forgotten city of Machu Picchu. The thousands of historical artifacts he brought back have since become controversial beyond what Bingham ever could have imagined.

On April 25 and 26, nearly a century after Bingham’s "discovery," a group of scholars speaking different languages and with different areas of expertise and scholarship gathered at the University of Virginia with a common goal: to discuss "Machu Picchu and Beyond: Challenges of Cultural Heritage and Architectural Preservation in a Globalized World."

According to U.Va. Latin American history professor Brian Owensby, the symposium was part of a University-wide effort to begin a global discussion of "what it means to be concerned with these kinds of ancient sites, to run these kinds of sites in terms of a global tourist economy."

For many, the pinnacle of architectural culture is in European countries like Italy and France. Though these countries certainly have much to offer, "There are a lot of other things to look at in the world, and a lot of other historical experiences, within which constructed objects like buildings or cities emerge," Owensby said. "We ought to pay attention to that, and budding architects ought to be exposed to that."

Owensby, along with architecture professor Dean Abernathy, began to think about how to "raise the profile of all things Latin America at U.Va." The two made contact with Jorge Secada in the Department of Philosophy, and a relationship began to take off in broader ways than any had imagined. Secada, a Peru native, put Owensby and Abernathy in touch with relevant contacts and the discussion began to take shape.

One of Secada's contacts recently came across some interesting information about Machu Picchu, an Incan mountaintop city that supposedly was rediscovered by Bingham’s expedition. Bingham returned to the United States with a number of artifacts, which currently reside in Yale's Peabody Museum. That number, once believed to be about 4,900 items, has been reevaluated and numbered at 46,000. The Peruvian government has asked for the artifacts to be returned. Both Yale and Peru claim a right to the artifacts, and a debate has continued between the two, attracting the attention of scholars around the country and the world.

This ownership debate is part of a larger discussion of how best to preserve and honor important ancient sites in today's world.

Machu Picchu was named in 2007 one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World." With this title likely comes a huge influx of tourism into the ancient Incan city. Though tourism is a good thing for tourists and locals alike, it can potentially present a destructive strain on the site. As Owensby puts it, "Whenever you introduce cars and large numbers of human beings, you put sites like this at risk."

In this case, not only is Machu Picchu at risk, but so are the surrounding areas like the town of Ollantaytambo, where the sheer number of people and vehicles coming through are dangerous for the ancient, fragile Incan town. The Architecture School created a studio under Abernathy, operating in parallel with a similar World Bank project, to attempt to create a sustainable new transportation center to maintain the economic gains for Ollantaytambo, but keep the traffic out of the center of town.

• U.Va. Architecture Students Participate in Global, Real-Life Issues

The symposium began the afternoon of April 25, with students from the studio presenting their Ollantaytambo proposals to members of the World Bank and the executive director of COPESCO, an organization working in Peru.

On Friday evening and Saturday, the discussion turned to broader issues. In a series of panels, scholars from different fields discussed issues of patrimony, preservation and culture. The issue of returning Bingham's artifacts to Peru brought particularly heated discussion from speakers who felt that the United States and Peru must work together for the good of all parties, instead of fighting for ownership of the artifacts. In a presentation during a panel titled "The Machu Picchu Artifacts: The Historical Heritage of Nations and of Humanity," Secada proposed the building and co-sponsorship of an archaeological museum in Peru featuring these artifacts among many others.

"The key," said Secada, "is to bring together everyone and address their interests in an amicable and just way."

Scholars from around the United States and the world discussed the importance of working together, of fusing the old world and the new for the betterment of both. The symposium, each speaker echoed, marked the beginning of crucial discussions as to how these issues of ancient sites and artifacts should be handled in a modern world. The issues were architectural, political, cultural and social. As one student put it, "It's not only about the construction of pretty buildings, but about the cultural interface."

There is another symposium planned for the fall, with the idea of representatives from both Yale and Peru attending.

"The question is," Secada told the audience, "how can we solve this impasse in a reasonable and amicable way?"

Students and faculty at the University of Virginia, over the foreseeable future, will play significant roles in answering that question.

— By David Pierce