MU museum director named to federal committee

Tuesday, May 10, 2011 | 7:51 p.m. CDT; updated 10:12 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 10, 2011

COLUMBIA — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently named Alexander Barker, director of MU's Museum of Art and Archaeology, to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Committee.

Created in 1990, the committee is a companion to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

According to the National Parks Service's website, the act "provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items ... to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations."

These items include human remains, funerary objects and sacred objects. In addition, objects of cultural patrimony or objects of importance to an entire community, rather than to one individual, are included in the act. 

Barker said the committee ensures that museums and tribes resolve repatriation issues in accordance with the law.

The committee consists of three scholars, three members of native tribes and a member at large who serves for four years.

Four times a year, the committee meets to discuss the ownership of cultural property. 

"The trick is deciding what belongs to whom," Barker said. "These are not necessarily clear issues because archaeological and tribal arguments are two radically different kinds of evidence."

Barker said that the review process provides an opportunity for all stakeholders to discuss the cultural property in a public forum.

"There are many stakeholders — tribes, museums, private entities like corporations — that are involved," Barker said. "There's a perception that all of their interests differ; I hope they don't."

Barker said he will pull from his experience at MU when serving on the committee.

"This is a working museum," Barker said. "We are involved with issues of cultural property all the time. It just informs what I do here."

Barker previously worked as vice president for collections and research at the Milwaukee Public Museum and has served as field director for numerous archaeological projects across the U.S.

Barker said he is excited to explore issues of cultural property on a national level.

"Ultimately, this committee is about who owns the past and trying to figure out a fair way to balance competing claims," Barker said. "These are the issues that make history."

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