Major Exhibition on Machu Picchu Opens January 26 at Yale Peabody Museum

“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,” the largest exhibition on the Incas ever assembled in the United States, will open at the Peabody Museum January 26.

The exhibit is one of the largest undertakings in the museum’s history. It is in part a reflection of the research and findings of archaeologists Richard L. Burger and Lucy C. Salazar, co-curators of the exhibition, into the origins and uses of the famous archaeological site, which was rediscovered in 1911 by Yale professor and archaeologist Hiram Bingham III.

With its historical and scientific context and its interactive components, the exhibit has something for everyone. First and foremost, it draws on Burger and Salazar’s research to tell, finally, the real story of the Incas. Contrary to Bingham’s speculation that Machu Picchu was occupied for centuries, Burger and Salazar show that it was active for less than a hundred years. They also demonstrate that Machu Picchu was not an isolated spiritual center, nor a refuge for the defeated Incas, but a summer retreat for the Inca elite from Cuzco, the empire’s capital. Burger calls it “the Inca equivalent to Camp David.”

This “country palace” situated magnificently in the Peruvian Andes was populated seasonally by the ruling Inca and several hundred craftsmen and other servants necessary to carry on the affairs of estate and government. Salazar comments, “In our exhibition we show that Machu Picchu was a royal estate built by Inca Pachacuti, the first imperial ruler of the Empire, in 1450. A special caste of metallurgists and craftsmen lived in Machu Picchu and served the Inca elite.” These workers were well-fed and well-treated. Regarding the retreat’s location, Burger said, “Pachacuti may well have picked out the site simply because it was so beautiful. The Inca were connoisseurs of highland panoramas, and they had an aesthetic about stonework and mountain views.”

The exhibition also sets straight the composition of the population at Machu Picchu, which was, Burger said, “much more varied than people had appreciated. Today, when people look at the ruins in Peru, it’s easy to forget the sort of complexity that existed in Inca times.” Machu Picchu was the melting pot of the Inca empire, “more like New York than an isolated rural village in Peru, in terms of its cultural population,” Burger said. “The people living in Machu Picchu were brought there from all over the empire. They were from different ethnic groups and spoke different languages. They had all been brought together in part to serve these Inca rulers.”

The exhibition is visitor friendly. Drawing on the latest technology, it provides an interactive learning experience that explores the scientific methodology behind the archaeological process. Dioramas, topographic models, thematic video displays and computer interactives inform visitors about the legacy of the Inca, and an interactive laboratory shows how archaeologists in the 21st century interpret the 15th century.

Visitors will “travel” into the past, first to Machu Picchu with Hiram Bingham and the 1911 Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition, and then further back to the 15th century AD when Machu Picchu functioned as an Inca royal estate. Visitors will view a panorama of the high altitude cloud forest of Peru, walk along a replica of an ancient Inca road, take a self-guided interactive tour of the Inca palace complex, and inspect an Inca burial chamber. On entering the house of the Inca king, they will find a life-size mannequin of the king, whose gold jewelry and alpaca tunic have been reproduced specifically for the exhibition by craftsmen in Peru.

Central to the exhibition are some of the finest surviving examples of Inca art, many of them recovered from Machu Picchu, including over 400 gold, silver, ceramic, bone and textile artifacts, along with photographs and other memorabilia. These materials are used as a springboard for a discussion of archaeological science and the way in which knowledge of relevant aspects of ecology, astronomy, metallurgy, human biology and other scientific subjects have proved to be critical in understanding the purpose of Machu Picchu and why it was abandoned.

As director of the Peabody Museum from 1995 through the end of 2002, Burger was responsible for raising the considerable funds necessary to stage the exhibition. Major support comes from federal, state, and private foundations, including the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, Connecticut Humanities Council, and The William Bingham Foundation, as well as numerous individual donors. A gala previewing the exhibition and honoring its donors will take place the evening of Saturday, January 25, 2003.

The exhibition closes on May 4, 2003, when it begins a two-year tour of five major venues before returning to the Peabody for permanent installation. Those venues include the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (June 14 to Sept. 7, 2003), Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Oct. 18, 2003, to Jan. 4, 2004), Denver Museum of Nature and Science (February to early May, 2004), and Chicago’s Field Museum (fall, 2004). One other venue is yet to be named.

The Peabody Museum, located at 170 Whitney Avenue, is open Monday to Friday from 10 to 5, and Sunday from noon to 5. For more information about the exhibition and special viewing hours, call 203-432-9891 or e-mail

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