A Talk With: Alex Barker

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After my recent conversation with Jim Cuno, the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, I thought I would get in touch with a prominent archaeologist to see what he thought of Cuno’s proposal for a return to partage, the practice whereby source nations used to share some of the finds from archaeological digs with the foreign museums or universities that financed the digs and provided the archeologists. Alex W. Barker is the director of the Museum of Art & Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society for American Archaeology.

LACAYO: Many people outside of these debates don’t understand the idea of archeological site damage. Could you name a particularly painful instance?

BARKER: The Spiro Mound site in Oklahoma was probably the most spectacular [Native American] burial site ever excavated in the United States. It was all excavated by looters. They even leased the land as a mining company so they could dig for artifacts. When they were done they filled it with black powder and blew it up. Most of that looting happened in 1933.

LACAYO: The goal of the archaeological profession is to protect sites from vandalism by looters. But Cuno and many museum people say that despite the tightening of cultural property laws, and the more aggressive pursuit of museums and collectors, looting has actually increased. On the other hand, Francesco Rutelli, the culture minster of Italy, says that in his country looting has declined.

BARKER: Well, it’s not an either/or proposition. In some areas the looting may have decreased, especially if there’s a very active effort on the part of the source country to discourage looting. A lot of it has to do with the resolve and the level of funding the source countries are able to throw at the problem. But I think the levels of site looting have gone up. There are a number of reasons for that. One is that the market has expanded hugely. Values have expanded hugely. And the scale of antiquities trading and trafficking in minor pieces, things that aren’t going to end up in a place of honor at the Met, has increased hugely as a result of on line auction houses and E-bay.

LACAYO: So by itself the enforcement of cultural property laws doesn’t adequately protect the sites?

BARKER: Of course. I don’t think there’s anyone on any side of the argument who would suggest that the laws and protocols we have in place at the moment are sufficient to protect the sites.

LACAYO: What would be sufficient?

BARKER: I wish there were clear cut answers. One of the reasons this is such a compelling ethical question, at least for archaeologists, is that with the exception of a certain cases of outright criminal intent, this is an area that’s rife with shades of gray. I think compelling cases are made by encyclopedic museums who say they are perserving the world’s heritage. But at the same time they’re also in many cases the ones who are driving the antiquities market.

LACAYO: Jim Cuno wants to see a return to partage. Do you think that’s possible, or, to begin with, even desirable?

BARKER: Do you mean a division by title where the museums would have part of it and the source countries would have part of it? Or a division in which the source countries would make things available to museums for long term display?

LACAYO: Let’s talk first about the old fashioned kind, in which, say, the University of Chicago would come home from an archaeological project with title to some significant portion of the find.

BARKER: For practical and political reasons I think it’s unlikely we’ll return to a system like that.

LACAYO: What about the other kind, in which the objects go abroad but are still understood to be the property of the source nation.

BARKER: That would be much more practical. I would hope over the long term those are the kinds of solutions we can come up with. Look at the case of Egypt. Zahi Hawass [head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities] opposes the idea of things coming out and staying at foreign institutions. But at the same time Egypt faces enormous economic pressure to care for the collections they have, simply because of their scale. One can imagine a model in which Egyptian material can go out to museums around the world with the understanding that it still belongs to the people of Egypt but is being cared for by museums around the world in return for the opportunity to show it to their publics. I think then Egypt wins, the antiquities win and the public in all those other areas win.

LACAYO: What about in effect “renting” them? That’s a proposal that’s been advanced by a Harvard economist, Michael Kremer, who suggests that source nations could charge to make their antiquities available to foreign museums on long term loan. The money could go to improve museum quality in the source country or to beef up security at archaeological sites.

BARKER: My concern about a leasing model is that it puts a lot of source countries, which are in a position of substantial financial hardship, into a position where they start treating their antiquities as a resource they can mine.

LACAYO: To use the phrase of John Merryman, the Stanford law professor who favors some kind of free market in antiquities, do you think there can be a “licit trade” in antiquities?

BARKER: Licit versus licit is a matter of law. I’m forced to think about it more from an ethical standpoint, whether there should be a licit trade in antiquities. A lot of people will talk about objects as things that have intrinsic value. Archaeologists are much more concerned about all the other information that goes along with them. And that’s a very fragile thing and can be lost very easily. I’m very sympathetic to the position.

LACAYO: Do you think there are a few steps that might be taken that would satisfy the desire of museums to see a more flexible regime in the area of cultural property but still adequately protect the sites?

BARKER: I think there are solutions that would be workable and fair to all parties concerned, but that’s very different from saying would all parties agree to them. One or another form of partage is one — and I think the most likely is the kind where source nations are able to maintiain their claim on the material but museums are able to show it, partly for the benefit of their own public, and also to drive tourism to the source countries.

Part of this also depends on museums viewing title in a slightly different way. Most museums are uncomfortable with dealing with objects on a long term basis if they can’t secure good title. From an economic standpoint it’s scary. This is one of the things that has really chilled museum exhibition of Native American material. Museums are afraid of building a hall which is suddenly going to be emptied of objects. That may be a reality museums need to face.

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