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.
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.