Interview with Christopher Heaney
By Patricia Marín
Questions translated by:
Luz Huayhuaca and Michael B. Lambert.
Patricia Marín. - A century after his greatest achievement, what degree of importance has history in the United States given to Hiram Bingham? How are his action seen?
Cristopher Heaney. - That’s a wonderful question. Among fans of exploration history, Bingham is famous. Among the general public, however, Bingham has only become well known in recent years, as Machu Picchu reached its centenary in the public eye and various books were published detailing Bingham’s adventures and misadventures. Bingham is seen as a visionary and, for some, a hero -- though the recent conflict between Peru and Yale made it fairly clear that his legacy was far more complex, and that he had done in things in Peru that he wanted to keep quiet. For that reason, perhaps, Bingham is far more famous, or maybe infamous, in Peru than he has ever been in the United States.
P.M. -What kind of a person was Bingham? What was his "psychology"?
C. H.-Bingham was always trying for greatness, and almost always believed that he was one hundred percent in the right. Contemporaries described him as having a ‘superior personality’, which is a nice way of saying that he couldn’t very much stand not being respected. He came from a poor but religious background, and whether he was in university, at Yale, a historian, a explorer, a pilot, or a U.S. Senator, he always felt he had something to prove -- was reaching for the highest point of respect and fame. In some ways, he was a visionary: he was very good at recognizing new facts, and how they could be arranged into new opportunities. Most of all, perhaps, he understood the importance of ‘image’: how Machu Picchu looked, how he himself looked, how photography would be used to transform what we found important in the twentieth century. But he also reached too far, at times, and focused on image to the detriment of content.
P.M. - Let's talk about his objective merits. What were they in regards to his work in general, and more specifically, in regards to his discovery of Machu Picchu?
C.H.- The anthropologist John Rowe once wrote that Inca archaeology in the Cusco region began with Bingham. I’m not sure if that’s entirely the case, but it is true that Bingham was one of the first, and certainly the most well-funded, to do a very, very important thing: to treat the chronicles of the last days of Vilcabamba, Manco Inca’s independent kingdom, as a derrotero that could be used to find the actual final settlements of the Incas on the ground, in the valleys beyond Cusco. Bingham did so at the prompting of Carlos Romero, Julio Tello, and the North American anthropologist Curtis Farabee, but his incredible success is very much due to his exerted effort: Machu Picchu, Patallacta, the Inca Trail, Vitcos. Yurak Rumi, Espiritu Pampa/Vilcabamba – all are hugely important to our study of the final days of the Inca resistance, and Bingham was the first to describe them scientifically.
In terms of Machu Picchu itself, Bingham’s exploration and excavation of the site had two important consequences, one of them unintended. What Bingham meant to contribute, and suceeded at, was lifting Machu Picchu up us an example not only of pre-Columbian development and artistic genius in Peru, but in the entire Americas. Through his promotion of the site in National Geographic, he started a conversation about Inca achievement that we’re still having – perhaps at the detriment of pre-Inca peoples – today. The unintended positive consequence, however, was that Bingham’s attention to Machu Picchu was the example Peruvian intellectuals needed to push the Peruvian government to pass stronger decrees protecting Peruvian patrimony. Those decrees prohibited the export of artifacts, and forbade excavation without a permit, and completely changed the public conversation over excavation, smuggling, and archaeology. In the history of Peruvian law when it comes to archaeology, there’s pre-Machu Picchu, and post-Machu Picchu, and Hiram Bingham had the hard honor of straddling the dividing line.
P.M. - In 1915, Bingham left Peru quite resentful, "never to return again". Who was in the right regarding the mess he had with certain groups and with the government?
C.H. - This is the most fascinating part of Hiram Bingham’s story, to me.
To give a little background: Hiram Bingham left Peru in 1912 with the artifacts and human remains of Machu Picchu following behind him. He had the Peruvian government’s permission to take them to Yale University, in the United States, for study, but on one condition: that Peru could call them back at any time.
This was a problem for Bingham, as he had promised Yale University a collection of Peruvian antiquities. In Bingham’s own archives at Yale, I found that he then began paying collectors from Cusco and Lima to ship artifacts north to Yale. I believe that he did so to fulfill his obligation to Yale’s museum.
At the same time, however, he made plans for an institute in Peru, where North Americans and Peruvians could study archaeology together for the foreseeable future, that would also house all the artifacts he would find on later expeditions, thus respecting Peruvian law. This was in 1915.
They actually got this institute started in Ollantaytambo, when rumors reached Cusco that Yale had found gold and silver at Machu Picchu, and was smuggling it out through Bolivia. A commission, led by Luis Valcárcel, investigated the expedition and found no evidence that the Yale men had discovered gold and silver -- but did learn that they were excavating without a permit, and Bingham had to flee the country.
What I believe happened was this: Bingham’s purchase of artifacts and the Yale expedition’s excavations in the Urubamba Valley, which focused on human remains, led to larger rumors that were untrue in their specifics, but nonetheless built on real wrong-doing. Yale was excavating without a permit, and Bingham was paying for collections to be smuggled up to Yale. It’s fascinating: Bingham believed that he could do right by Yale and by Peru, at the same time. In some ways, he believed he could both export artifacts and collaborate with Peruvians, and it would all be all right. Ultimately, though, he had to choose between Yale and Peru, and he chose Yale.
P.M. - If one reads the Valcárcel's "Memoirs," one may notice that there are strangely very few lines dedicated to the case of Bingham. It doesn't give the impression that he had been one of the main objectors in his proceedings. His final evaluation is even favorable to the explorer. What could explain his reticence and his change of mind?
C.H. - Yes, this is a fascinating, fascinating question. What I think is that Luis E. Valcárcel was very young when he made his accusations, and I believe he was somewhat embarrassed at the time: his commission found no gold, nor silver, nor smuggling through Bolivia. Bingham would also have made it very clear to Valcárcel that the investigation had ended any immediate relationship between Yale and the University of Cusco. Still, Valcárcel believed that he was right: that Yale had been excavating without a permit, and that Bingham had been paying for smuggled artifacts. Valcárcel discovered that both those facts were true, in 1915 (though not in 1912, when Yale excavated at Machu Picchu), but it was after Bingham abandoned his career as an explorer.
But Bingham and Valcárcel would meet again, in the 1930s, when Valcárcel, as director of the National Museum, traveled to North America and toured the country’s museums. They ate lunch together. Valcárcel wrote in his journal that it was very nice. Valcárcel even got to see the artifacts at Machu Picchu, and noticed the presence of the purchased artifacts among the collection. Why didn’t he object then? I believe that Valcárcel thought that too much time had passed, and that now, perhaps, was the moment for reconciliation. Or he simply may have just gotten older, and saw Bingham less as an adversary than as an older man, like himself, who shared a love of Inca culture.
There’s no way of knowing, though. What is true is that after Valcárcel’s visit, in the 1930s, Bingham became in much closer contact with his Peruvian colleagues, like Julio Tello, paving the way for his return in 1948.
P.M. - Bingham published numerous books and articles in his lifetime: political, historical, travel books, several versions of the discovery of Machu Picchu, reviews, etc. Was he a good writer and researcher? What were his contributions and limitations in these aspects?
C.H. - Hiram Bingham was a very good writer when he was inspired, and he was inspired easily. He was, however, more romantic than he was rigorous. His writing about Machu Picchu, the Incas, and Cusco, is a lot of fun to read, but every version is different. At different times he believed that Machu Picchu was unimportant; that it was the first city of the Incas, Tampu Tocco; that it was the last city of the Incas, Vilcabamba; that it was both at the same time! This was partly a problem of research, of not having found enough, but it was also because of his writing obligations. Bingham is a classic example of a historian or archaeologist who seeks to make his work famous, then must theorize or publish earlier than perhaps he should. He was deeply, deeply concerned with being recognized by not only his academic peers, but with the public at large, and that affected his work.
P.M. - What is the main difference that would distinguish your work, from the ones already in existence, such as that of Bingham's own son?
C.H. - Alfred Bingham’s biography of his father, Portrait of an Explorer, is very good, as is that of his other son, Woodbridge. Both give a good portrayal of what Bingham was like at home, and how he organized his expeditions. I am indebted to them for the work they undertook before I touched the subject.
However, neither got deeply into the Peruvian side of the story. Alfred’s biography used his father’s papers, and touched upon the controversies of 1912, and 1915, but largely dismissed them as functions of Peruvian nationalism. What I did with my work was marry Bingham’s archives to those of the municipality and department of Cusco, the papers of Luis Valcárcel, Albert Giesecke, and, most recently, Julio Tello. I also actually read all the letters in Spanish that Bingham was sending and receiving, something that I’m not sure Alfred got to do.
What I found was a very different image: a Bingham that was interesting, charismatic, and ambitious, but who was also playing many games at once; who was caught between his obligations to Yale and to Peru; who genuinely cared, I think, about his connections to Peru, but felt more tied to the U.S., and thus was more deliberate, and less accidental, with his collecting. I also found a Peru that wasn’t xenophobic, or nationalistic, but genuinely trying to enact a policy of cultural patrimony protection, after nearly four centuries of export and loss.
P.M. - What other texts about Bingham do deem as valuable?
C.H.- Hugh Thomson’s The White Rock has an excellent discussion over Bingham’s mindset as an explorer, and I think Mariana Mould de Pease’s work on Bingham, here in Peru, has done a lot to explore Bingham’s desire to collect. I also appreciate the work of the Argentine Ricardo Salvatore, who portrays Bingham as being part of the larger North American quasi-imperial collecting venture.
What I tried to do, with my book, was synthesize those approaches with my own research on what Bingham did and did not do, and what Peruvians expected him to do.
P.M. - Throughout the development of your research, who were your key sources and informants in Cusco and throughout Peru?
C.H.-There were so many! I was greatly helped by Pedro Guibovich at the PUCP, Ada Arrieta and the archivists at the Instituto Riva-Agüero, Luis Valcárcel’s son, Frank (and his nephew Fernando), Cesar Coloma and his team at the archives of Luis E. Valcárcel, Donato Amado and Jorge Flores Ochoa in Cusco, and many, many more besides. Mariana Mould de Pease was also very helpful early on, and though we often disagreed on the causes and effects of Bingham’s problems in Peru, we have remained cordial. At the Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Blanca Alva helped me understand the case in the context of Peru’s larger struggles over patrimony.
I should add that there were many North Americans that helped this project along as well: the archivists in Yale’s library, the National Geographic Society, the investigators Daniel Buck and Paolo Greer, and many, many more.
I’m now back in Peru, conducting research for my dissertation on the cultural and political exchanges created by collaborations between Peruvian and North American intellectuals and archaeologists,, and I’m thrilled to be an investigator associated with the Departamento de Humanidades and the Programa de Estudios Andinos de la PUCP. Marco Curatola has helped me much, as have the archivists at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Antropología e Historia Peruana, and the Archivo Tello de San Marcos.
P.M. - Could you please summarize your relationship with Cusco (the trips that you took, be they to write your book or before that, your general impressions...) and specifically your relationship with Machu Picchu?
C.H. - I love Cusco. I lived in Cusco for a year of my life, and it was where this book truly took shape. Cusco is a spiritual mecca for many, an archival mecca for historians, and a cultural mecca for everyone else. I’ve been lucky enough to experience all three.
Machu Picchu is at another level, though. It has gotten more and more stressful to get to Machu Picchu -- and more expensive -- in the years that I’ve been coming to Peru, but whenever I get there I feel my stress melt away. It’s truly a special place. Bingham got a lot wrong, in terms of his historical interpretation, but at the very least we should recognize him for seeing Machu Picchu’s beauty.
M.P. - What do you think Machu Picchu's current situation and how do you see the controversy that persists around us between the tourist and business "development" sectors and the cultural "conservationist" sector?
C.H. - I don’t feel informed enough on the subject to comment. I’m sorry.
P.M. - Even though Bingham's life is colorful and even quite sensational, why hasn't Hollywood made ??a movie about it?
C.H. - I think that’s a great idea! What I’ve heard is that he’s too complicated. For big movies, Hollywood likes clear heroes and clear villains, and Bingham was way, way too ambiguous. I see him as a Lawrence of Arabia character, whose movie version was split between romanticism and imperialism, which I think is fascinating.
The other way of answering that is that Hollywood already has made a movie about Bingham! Several in fact! The first is from the 1950s and it’s named Secret of the Incas. It stars Charlton Heston as an American explorer who finds a gold sun disk at Machu Picchu, but feels guilty and gives it back to the Quechua people. The movie was inspired by Bingham’s writing, was made with the help of Bingham’s greatest contact in Peru, Albert Giesecke, an American, and was filmed in Cusco. And when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came up with the character of Indiana Jones, they referred their design team to the Heston movie. What I like to say is that Indiana Jones wasn’t Hiram Bingham -- he was Bingham’s pop cultural grandson, the simplistic, heroic photocopy of Bingham’s far more complex, flawed and fascinating legacy.
But we’ll see -- maybe the world is ready for a Bingham movie after all...
P.M. - Towards the end of his life, what did he think about his adventures and misadventures in Peru?
C.H. - He was proud of them. He knew that Machu Picchu was the thing he’d most be remembered for. But in some of his letters there’s a little regret, that he left Peru so early, and didn’t return for nearly a quarter of a century. Whether that means he also regretted his decisions, as a collector, and as a representative of Yale, is another question. It’s hard to say, and I think it should be hard for us to say as well. Hiram Bingham was no cartoon character; we misunderstand him at our peril.
P.M.- Now that the dispute between Yale and the Peruvian government has been resolved, what do you think about it? And what do you think of the way that the repatriated objects have been installed, as well as of the new museum that has them?
C.H. - It was wonderful to hear of the accord reached between Peru and Yale. When Bingham visited Peru on his last expedition, in 1915, he hoped to establish the collaborative institute at Ollantaytambo. Those plans foundered on his own desire to keep building Yale’s collection of artifacts. It’s therefore wonderful to see Yale and the University of Cusco come together, to fulfill not only Bingham’s dream, but that of Luis E. Valcárcel, Julio Tello, Albert Giesecke, Jose Gabriel Cosio, and all of the other Peruvians and North Americans who worked so hard together to advance Cusco archaeology, but were frustrated by the conflicts between North America’s goals of building collections, and Peru’s goals of keeping artifacts in the country. Peru won, of course, in part through its conflict with Bingham in 1912, but it has taken a long, long time for the story of Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu to be resolved. Now that the artifacts and human remains are returning home, we’re now able, I think, to see both Bingham and his Peruvian collaborators in a clearer light, and focus on protecting the Machu Picchus of the future from modern dangers of looting and smuggling. It has been thrilling to see Peruvian and North American archaeologists’ work to that end, throughout the country.
I can’t answer the second half of the question, unfortunately. Every time I’ve been to Cusco since then, the new collaborative center has been closed for renovation and preparation for the rest of the pieces. But I hope the installation, when it is completed, tells a thoroughly complex version of the Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu story. In addition to explaining Bingham’s contribution, it should also recognizes the efforts of Peruvians to guard pre-Colombian patrimony in Bingham’s day, and should not try to whitewash the genuine conflict that led to Machu Picchu artifacts’ return to Peru.
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