While Mirae Kim was a graduate student in Pittsburgh, a conversation with a friend clarified her future research interests. As Kim describes it, her friend said “My mom always makes a donation every year to the Carnegie Museum, though she rarely visits it.” When Kim asked why, her friend answered, “Well, she is a Pittsburgher, and she feels like it’s just ‘our thing.’” Kim realized, “So, as a community member, she feels like she is obliged to make some gift every year; it’s just something that she has to do. And I just got so fascinated: why do people make [these gifts]? Why do they feel they need to do that?” It was a practice she had not seen growing up in South Korea or studying abroad in New Zealand. In the United States, however—particularly Pittsburgh, a city known for charitable giving—Kim was intrigued by patrons making small donations—under $100—to arts organizations. Moreover, arts organizations’ share of revenue from individual donors was huge: “It wasn’t just a small amount,” Kim emphasizes, “but often fifty percent or more of their revenue stream.” She wanted to learn more: why do people make these gifts? What is the role of small gifts? What kind of contribution does the nonprofit sector make to the community?
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.
Dr. Kim traces the shift in focus for arts organizations from education to broader definitions of community engagement.
Dr. Kim relates how she became interested in studying nonprofit arts organizations, and describes the different ways the nonprofit sector and nonprofit organizations function in the United States.
Barker takes us into the Museum of Art and Archaeology, heading immediately to a Mayan vessel that dates from sometime between about 600 to 900 CE. He is confident about the vessel’s authenticity because of the glyphic inscription across its lip describing the fruity cacao that the vessel’s owner would be drinking. The Mayan glyphic code was not broken until after the vessel was accepted and accessioned into the museum’s collection, he explains, and only because of subsequent scholarship are they able to read the inscription. That the vessel was created for cacao—chocolate—is also interesting, for cacao was one of the most important economic resources, along with salt, circulating as valuables in complex societies in Mesoamerica, even though cacao is not native to the region but to areas further south.
“Collaboration is necessary for someone like me because I don’t have a field,” says Barker. “Am I an anthropological archaeologist or am I a museum director? I’m both. We often talk about interdisciplinary research; by necessity, mine is completely interdisciplinary. It is always sitting between and spanning multiple disciplines.” He collaborates, for example, with other museums and research centers, for example with Michael D. Glascock of the Missouri Reactor Center’s Archaeometry Laboratory.
“I could never decide what I wanted to do,” recounts Barker. “I was interested in everything. People have described archaeology as being a discipline that takes from all the other disciplines. He began his career in archaeology at a very young age—during middle school, in fact—doing field camps through a Northwestern University program in southern Illinois, where he helped to excavate a series of very large sites. After doing a few seasons there, Barker was hooked.
Gone are the days of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, who could raid tombs without consideration of ethics. Part of Barker’s work concerns museum and cultural property ethics. Both as an archaeologist and as a museum professional, he is concerned about who should own and control cultural treasures. From an archaeological standpoint, cultural property largely concerns the prevention of looting and curbing illicit trafficking in antiquities. The rate of site destruction is huge, and archaeologists worldwide are working to protect the integrity of remaining sites.
As a museum director and archaeologist, one of Barker’s most pressing research agendas concerns ethics and the question of who owns the past. Although many objects in the museum’s collection predate modern acquisition guidelines, this remains a real concern for museum staff. Finding himself torn between competing and often contradictory claims to the past’s remnants, Barker struggles with how to ethically handle the acquisition of antiquities in a way that seeks to protect the archaeological record and the sovereignty of the countries from which the objects originate, but also to benefit the public today.
One of the paintings Barker was pleasantly surprised to find in the museum’s collection is a self-portrait by the Romanian surrealist Victor Brauner. Dating from 1923, the painting reflects the period immediately before the artist moved fully into surrealism as a means of representation. “It is a remarkable portrait,” explains Barker, “because it is the last time he paints himself with both eyes.” In his subsequent work, that is, the artist always paints himself with one eye missing—whether there is a gaping wound, an automaton of some kind, or his eyes placed on his hands. In 1938, Brauner was in a bar fight, during which his eye was poked out—the very eye he had been painting himself without for a decade and a half. Barker says, “Surrealism holds it up as an example of sort of a premonitory knowledge that this was going to happen, proof that time is not linear to the unconscious mind.”
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 clean and simple as possible. “Ultimately, we want people looking at the art, not at the labels,” he indicates; but the Museum still wants to educate. In that spirit, the museum is experimenting with technology to showcase the art and the significance of art to everyone by creating MP3-based audio tours of the museum that can then be played on any personal audio device, including iPods, notebook computers, and even cell phones. Barker hopes this will allow greater flexibility for visitors, whom he imagines selecting a tour and walking through the galleries at their leisure while looking at the art and listening to the audio information, “instead of looking back and forth between the label and the art.”
Barker has worked in several kinds of museums—natural history museums and anthropology museums. “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,” he says. “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.” Fortunately, the Museum of Art and Archaeology combines art with classical archaeology, offering a view of the changes of art over a very long period of time. Barker has been trying to make people more comfortable with the idea of coming into the museum and having their own experience with art—engaging authentic objects, whether from antiquity or from more recent periods, on their own terms.