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If Antiquities Could Talk

A visit with Alex Barker, Director, Museum of Art and Archeology

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: anthropology archaeology glyphic inscription vessel vase

Alex Barker wears several different hats in MU’s Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Art and Archaeology. One of these hats involves his research and fieldwork on the European Bronze Age and the ancient American southeast. The other involves the directorship of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.

Standing at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, most of Barker’s field research has in recent years dealt with a single broad question: how social complexity grows out of egalitarian societies. His fieldwork in North America and the Old World follows this transition over different periods and regions. In western Romania, Barker has searched for evidence at a site from the Bronze Age, where he hopes to find a relationship between political developments and the economics underlying these societies in order to understand why people would willingly forsake their rights as autonomous individuals for the new hierarchy: “It is easy to understand it if you are the person who is rising to prominence, but why do you accept it if you are not the person who is going to be in power?” He surmises that individuals must have benefited from the change, at least as they saw it, in order to surrender their own rights and assent to rule by someone else.

In trying to answer such questions, Barker looks at the individual within society as a more or less independent decision-maker who makes strategic choices as modern humans do today: “These same kinds of decisions in prehistory play an important role in deciding how you want to be ruled, whom you associate with, the importance of exchange, and what kinds of objects are prized or are traded.” In many cases, he contends, people don’t make a formal decision to have a monarch, but they do make a series of informal decisions, eventually finding themselves in situations their ancestors could not have possibly imagined.

Barker also conducts fieldwork in the New World. Many people do not realize how complex ancient North America was, and for a long time the history of this region reflected popular misconceptions rather than the cultural history of ancient groups. “One of the most important myths energizing the nineteenth-century imagination was that of the Moundbuilder,” Barker explains, “the idea that the ancient mounds of the southeastern and eastern United States had to have been built by an advanced race deemed far too complex and far too ‘civilized’ to have been the ancestors of modern Native Americans.” Theories abounded, claiming the mounds were the remnants from Atlantis, the Lost Tribes of Israel, indeed “that they were built by almost anybody except the ancestors of Native Americans.”

Debating the moundbuilder question preoccupied the popular imagination for more than a century: “It is probably not a coincidence that this myth took off just about the time Indian lands began being taken away, reached a zenith during the period when lands were being taking away most rapidly; and when land had been taken away, the myth vanished.” To us the myth may seem absurd, but it had considerable currency a century and a half ago. As Barker explains, “it is very hard to understand what a profound set of beliefs this was in nineteenth-century America because it gave us antiquity; it gave a depth to the New World, which was important for a country struggling with its ‘Manifest Destiny.’” Barker notes that many of these studies are interesting documents of American history because the conclusions reached have nothing to do with the ancient moundbuilders, but everything to do with America at the time the works were written. “These studies aren’t about a particular, lived past,” he continues, “but instead are a projection of the present and its misconceptions onto an imagined past.”

In Missouri, for example, a series of major mound sites that started to appear around 1100 CE; the Cahokia Mounds, located just outside of present-day St. Louis, is a major Mississippian mound center. At its peak (1050 to 1200 CE), it covered nearly six square miles with 10,000 to 20,000 residents – larger than London at the time. Houses and mounds were arranged around open plazas, with the main agricultural fields positioned outside the city and more than 120 mounds gracing the once-thriving community.

“We are talking about a remarkable degree of complexity that rises very quickly,” says Barker. Certain symbolic forms appear and vanish within a period of 100 to 150 years. Evidence reveals a culture developing for some period of time, and then existing symbols being replaced by a whole set of new symbols, pasted on top in response to a change in hierarchy. “You see that pattern in various parts of the southeast,” he explains, “where these symbols seem to be associated with the rise of Mississippian society and Mississippian elites—the symbolic forms appropriated to prop up the authority of the early chiefdoms.”

Art was used in these societies in socially strategic ways. “These are remarkable things,” comments Barker enthusiastically. “They are beautiful pieces of art in their own right, but they are also made of raw materials that come from nowhere near the places where they are found.” Some of the pieces are made of copper (from the Upper Great Lakes) and bauxite or fire clay (from Arkansas), yet they have been found from Oklahoma to the Carolinas, and from Florida to Wisconsin. “So the distances of trade are enormous, but the symbols being used in these long distance trade systems are shared across a very wide area and across very different sets of languages,” he notes. “Certainly, as you go from Arkansas and Oklahoma to Alabama, you see an emphasis on different parts of the corpus of these symbols, but they are still using the same basic symbols in relatively similar ways.”

Not surprisingly, Barker brings this passion for the life of objects to the public sphere at the Museum of Art and Archaeology : “Museum work is probably the smallest of the different sub-areas within archaeology, but in some ways it is the most pure because you are either dealing with the fieldwork or with the collections themselves, and interpreting both to diverse publics. To me, that is the area compromised the least in terms of what archaeology is all about.” Archaeology, according to Barker, is ultimately about using the past to challenge our assumptions and stereotypes. "If archaeology has any redeeming virtue it is that the past is allowed to surprise us and to confound our expectations,” he says.

Working with art museums, however, is not without its challenges. For one thing, Barker refers to a certain tension between curators, who have “all this stuff they want to communicate,” and exhibit designers, “who want to keep the exhibit as aesthetically pleasing and clean as possible.” Both are valid views. He explains that “ultimately, we want people looking at the art, not at the labels.” But what people see depends in part on what they’re told about the object, on how they’re able to place that object into a meaningful context. In that spirit, the museum is experimenting with alternatives—such as creating multiple MP3-based audio tours for each exhibit to be played on any personal audio device (including iPods, cell phones, and even notebook computers)—that will allow greater flexibility for visitors and customized tours to serve different needs. Barker imagines a not-so-distant future where museum-goers will select an individualized tour, and then walk through the galleries at their own pace, listening to the audio information while looking at the art, instead of looking back and forth between the label and the art.

It can be challenging for visitors to balance the wealth of information, admits Barker. That is especially true in art museums, where so much depends on prior knowledge. As he puts it, “no one feels uncomfortable going into a natural history museum without knowing about bird taxonomy or going into an anthropology museum without knowing the latest details about the origins of humans, but a lot of people are uncomfortable coming to an art museum if they don’t know a lot about art, and that is not a good thing.” Art museums need to reach out to new audiences, he feels, not just those with a well-developed appreciation for art and aesthetics.

MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology is unusual in that it combines art with archaeology, spanning many millennia of cultural development and artistic achievement. “That is important,” Barker advises, “because it is very difficult to understand the gradual development of art styles without understanding where they came from.” His goal is to educate museum visitors in a capacity comfortable for them. He wants people to come to the museum and have an engaging experience with art on their own terms. In closing, Barker reflects: “If we can promote a debate about art, and people can come in—especially families—and have a conversation about what they are seeing, that is a ‘win’ because having multiple voices and multiple viewpoints on any exhibit is always a worthwhile thing.”