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A Camberwell Tale: The Curator's Story By: Rick Heller
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 10, 2003

Here in Camberwell, we like to think of our town as New England's most progressive community.  In other parts of America, museums hang on to artifacts looted from other cultures.  But the Camberwell Museum sends them back, no questions asked.

Todd Kieslowski deposited a large portfolio book on the oak desk of Museum Director Barbara Mercer.  He opened it to the first photograph.

"We can get an illustrated panel from a 1980's vintage New York subway car," Todd said.

Todd was curator for a planned exhibit to be called "Graffiti Of The Rap Era."  Together with the Director, he was going over items to be acquired or borrowed for the show. 

"New York subway cars have been done before," Barbara said. 

Todd flipped to the next photo.  "This is an eight by ten section of a brick wall removed from a warehouse in West Oakland," Todd said.  "The artist will reassemble the bricks in a random order."

"I like it."

There was a soft tap on the door, and the museum's General Counsel, Malcolm Carson, popped his head in.  "Barbara, can I speak to you for a moment?"

"Shoot," Barbara said.

"I have some bad news.  I've received correspondence from the Ministry of Culture of the United Islamist Republic.  They claim that one of our artifacts actually belongs to them."

"Which one?" Barbara asked.

"The Venus of the Sahara."

Todd's heart sank.  The Venus of the Sahara was a voluptuous 18 inch tall sculpture of a fertility goddess made by an unidentified Neolithic culture.  Dating to before 6000 B.C.E., the stone figure was older than the Pyramids.

"The Minister's personal representative will be here next Thursday to discuss the terms of the repatriation of the object."

Todd was not scheduled to participate in the meeting with the United Islamist Republic's representative.  However, on the morning of the meeting, a pale Barbara Mercer came into his office.

"He won't meet with me," she said.  "He does not meet with women."

"Tell him to get lost," Todd said.

"I'm sure it's nothing personal," Barbara said.  "I don't feel that I, as an American, can be telling a Third-World person how to conduct his business.  Can you sit in for me?"

"I'll do my best," Todd said.

"I'll listen in on speakerphone."

Todd expected to see a man in flowing robes sitting in the General Counsel's office.  In fact, the visitor was dressed in an army officer's olive uniform.  Colonel Zouabri spoke English in a British accent, and had impeccable manners.  Todd chided himself for having bought into a stereotype.

"Colonel, would you mind if I brought our director, Barbara Mercer, in on speakerphone?"

"I have no objection to the woman listening, so long as I do not hear her voice," the colonel said.  "Thank you for your consideration of the customs of my country."

Todd wondered why the colonel did not give consideration to the customs of Todd's city, but said nothing.  He called Barbara on the phone, and after warning her not to say anything, put the phone on speaker.

Malcolm Carson, the General Counsel, began the meeting.  "Colonel Zouabri, the artifact was legally exported from your country, as you can see from these documents."

The colonel examined the documents briefly.  "These papers have no value."

"I beg to differ," Carson said.

"The former rulers of my country were secularists who have been deposed.  Any paper carrying their seal is worthless."  With a black pen, the colonel drew a line across each of the documents.  "The object was taken from my country illegally. Our right to recovery is supported by the UNESCO Convention on the Return of Cultural Property."

Carson gathered the papers and placed them in his briefcase.  "You'll never win in an American court."

Just then, Todd heard two loud taps coming out of the speaker.  Barbara was trying to get his attention. 

Todd picked up the handset.  "It's off speaker."

"Tell Malcolm," Barbara said, "I don't think the Camberwell Museum should hide behind the American legal system."

"Yeah, but this guy's a fascist," Todd whispered.

"Todd, we're not missionaries for Western World," Barbara said.  "The Museum has to be seen as respecting all civilizations."

After the meeting was over, Barbara called the big names on the Board of Trustees and got their support.  Within days, the Museum's shipping department had built a crate to secure the artifact for its journey home. 

Todd walked alongside as the crate was wheeled out to a black limousine, and carefully loaded in the trunk.  Colonel Zouabri signed a receipt for the object. 

"I'm somewhat surprised," Todd said, "that you would even want a nude figure like the Venus of the Sahara.  Where will you display it?"

"Display it?  We're not going to display it."  Colonel Zouabri said.  "This is an idol created by our pagan ancestors.  When I return home, I will place the idol inside a metal drum along with three kilos of plastique.  I will then detonate it.  Ka-boom!" 

The Colonel slipped into the limo.  Todd watched helplessly as the vehicle carrying the Venus shrank to nothing more than a black spot in the distance.


Rick Heller is a comedy writer who lives in New England near the fictional town of Camberwell. He also produces the Smart Genes weblog.

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