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.
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.
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.”