Red Tapes, Green Lights

Updated: Nov 2, 2021

kneeling Bulls, The Louver, Paris

The museum’s coffeeshop was busy but there were still a few empty tables around when a couple sat at a table in a corner. The man rested his walking stick on the wall next to their table.

“It’s good to finally sit down,” the woman said as she hung her bag on the back of her chair and covered it with her jacket. “We have been on our feet for a good few hours. There is no way we could see even half of the galleries here in one day.”

“Are you saying that you’d want to come back here another day?”

“Who wouldn’t?” But then immediately she corrected herself. “I know, I know. But even you cannot deny the magnificent of these masterpieces. They are breathtakingly beautiful.”

A young waiter whose apron covered part of his perfectly ironed white shirt and black trousers took their order.

“Yes, it is marvellous here, considering …” The man said as soon as the waiter took their order and left.

“There we go again! Please say no more. I know where you are going with this conversation.”

The man sighed and shifted in his chair, put his right elbow on the table and rested his head on his hand, but immediately changed position and moved himself towards the back of the chair.

“More than 20 years of friendship is telling me that you have to say it, go on then.”

"It’s hardly surprising Margaret, I am not at ease here. These objects that have amazed us are practically stolen property. They shouldn’t be here.”

"I know what you're saying, but don’t forget things were different back when these artefacts were collected.”

“Even if, as you say, these artefacts were collected (he gestured air quotes) in the past, what happens to our responsibility now? Should we do differently now that we know better?”

“This is history. I think it is great that we can come to a museum and see these objects as part of human heritage.”

“Do you ever wonder how some of these pieces were brought here. A 20-meter-tall column for instance! Those limestone kneeling bulls must weigh a few tons! These are the pieces which made the journey. How many pieces have been destroyed for this many to survive the excavation and the journey here?”

“I don’t know but unlike you I won’t let that spoil my day. We’re at the Louvre for God’s sake and these artefacts belong to everyone to enjoy, including us.”

“Don’t you find it interesting that every time there is talk abound collective ownership of antiques, we are mostly dealing with artefacts from countries in the third world.”

“Well, there is a lot of history in Africa and Asia and a lot of countries in those reigns fall into the third world category. Why is that even important.”

Their order arrived. The waiter was pushing a highly decorated utility trolley.

“Wow, I love the trolley. Look at the wood texture. The gold brown background with the dark patterns is majestic.” She looked at the waiter and said, “We are in the Louvre after all.”

The waiter smiled and responded, “solid bocote wood, you only see this wood in exclusive furniture. Everyone falls in love with the trolley.” The waiter placed their order: soup, sea bass and sliced lemon and a basket of olive and French bread rolls followed. “Enjoy.”

“It’s a pity that Betty had to stay in bed today. I hope she gets better soon and can join us tomorrow. Imagine coming all this way but not be able to visit the Louvre.”

“Well, we came here for our second holiday as a married couple. Betty loved it and was as impressed as you are. “

“You are a man of good taste. Just tell me how can you not be impressed with all these antiquities?” She poured a glass of water for him when she saw him taking a blister pack out of his pocket and popping out two tablets.

“It annoys me that the French went across the world and looted everything...” He changed the topic of conversation abruptly when two women passed their table. “I should have skipped lunch. My stomach hurts.”

“Try to control you nerve, anger works as poison for your condition. Who would get angry over something that has happened decades if not centuries ago? Besides do you think it was just French who did the looting?” She took a spoonful of her soup. “Wow! It is hot!” She started stirring the soup. “Tell yourself that at least these artefacts are safe here and generations of any nation can see them here. They are shared history. Human history and arts I mean."

He pushed his plate away. “OK! I was trying to avoid this conversation, but let’s carry on talking about our common heritage. Have you ever thought why this common ownership doesn’t apply to, Em… let’s say technology of food? Yes, let’s talk about the food industry as a better example. Why do we let children starve to death because food doesn’t fall under the category of human common resources, hey?”

“I have no idea, but I am sure there would be consequences. If food produced belonged to everyone who was hungry and the manufacturers didn’t have ownership over it to make money, they simply go bust.”

“My dear Margaret the same logic applies to the artefacts and antiquities stolen from the third world countries. Why shouldn’t they be the ones who make money from their own artefacts.”

“But these items have been brought here many years ago. Surely you don’t want the museums to hunt for the original creators of items that they hold and make tombstones to commemorate them.”

“Of course not, but a percentage of the money taken from ticket sales can be spent on regions where these artefacts are from. Can it not? NGOs or educational units can use the money to support young artists with their education or exhibitions? What is wrong with sponsoring a number of artists from those regions to visit louvre?”

“How do you know these schemes don’t already exist.”

“They may exist. In fact I know of a few exchange programmes, but I bet if there is something in place, it is promoted as a charitable act not a cooperation, partnership or payback.”

“I am sure if the museums were to pay rent for the exhibited items, there is going to be lots of disputes, after all the international borders have changed and countries have divided. Who gets the ownership in these cases?”

“And you think ignoring everyone’s right is a good alternative?”

She pushed her shoulders up and the man continued, “Well, if equity is given a chance, we are be able to come up with a solution. Provided the idea can flourish before highjacked in the middle to make it a tokenised and demeaning gesture, that is.

“A nice idea but not really practical. The world class museums wouldn’t buy it.”

“I think one day it would be common practice embedded in all museum policy. To get there we would certainly require changes in how we look at things. But first we need to learn how to celebrate these masterpieces and also respect others rights.”

“I have finished my soup and you have hardly touched your food.” She put the spoon into the empty bowl.

“It’s best if I don’t eat fish. I had some bread.” He called out for the bill.

“Let’s go and see some more of what Louvre has to offer and leave this discussion to those in the know.” She said as she put her pin number in the credit card reader that the waiter passed her.

“Margaret, if this was everyone’s motto, we would’ve still had slavery as a law. Everyone needs to push for initiating a conversation to instigate talks for developing instruments and practical ideas for achieving what we need to do.”

“Don’t you think there are more important causes that people could advocate for.” She put her bag across her shoulder and passed the man’s walking stick to him.

The man got up and held on to the table trying to maintain his balance as he first stood up. “There is no shortage of what needs to be done. But a framework for acknowledging the rights of the owners of the museum’s pieces is one of them.” He stood straight and half pushed his chair in. “I know developing tools for returning artefacts requires times and effort, and governments much rather focus on repatriating refugees! But that’s another story. Let’s leave it for another day.”

“Yes, let’s leave it. Your creased-up forehead and bent posture tells me it’s best to call it a day. What do you think?”

“My stomach pain is getting worse. If you don’t mind, yes please, I prefer to go back to the hotel.”

She put on her jacket. “I think maybe Betty knew what was waiting for her in the louvre, and not feeling 100% was only an excuse." They laughed as they walked out of the coffeeshop.

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