As far as ancient artefacts go, it is often said “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”. With the protective glass, “do not touch” labels and stocky CIA-type security personnel with earpieces sticking out of their jackets, a norm in the world’s top museums, the phrase does seem quite true.

It must be said, however, that the artifacts on display at the Getty Villa, a museum overlooking the ocean on the Pacific Coast highway, in Malibu, California do not give the impression of heavily guarded and protected ¨dead¨ relics from the ancient world. These remnants of ancient culture ranging from statues to kitchen utensils some dating back to 700 BC, feel somewhat alive, probably owing to their settings.

In stark contrast to the futuristic design of its sister museum at the Getty Research Institute in Brentwood, Los Angeles, the Getty Villa is modelled after the Villa dei Papiri, a first century Roman country house at the ruin site of Herculaneum, an airy, sunlit environment featuring mosaic floors, colourful walls and of course 44,000 objects from ancient Rome, Greece and the less famous Etruscan civilisation.

Of late there has been much talk about the dubious acquisition of ancient artefacts by museums and collectors in the West, a heavily debated and unresolved issue that came up repetitively among the many art historians, archaeologists and scholars that gathered at the the Arts Council of the African Studies Association 15th Triennial Symposium on African art (ACASA 2011) held on the University of California LA campus recently.

Nevertheless, for a Zambian fan of antiquity transcending from the humble neigbourhood of Casanova which borders the yet more humble and generously dusty Kaunda Square and Kamanga townships in Lusaka, via decent hotel lodgings in the Brentwood, Bell Air area of LA into a reconstruction of a spectacular and almost sickeningly opulent ancient Roman villa, legality and authenticity of ¨ancient¨ artifacts has to be the last thing on one’s mind.

After you pass the 450-seater amphitheatre that is based on ancient prototypes and is used for staged plays, school tour lectures and musical performances, you enter a conventional looking museum entrance complete with the usual stairs and security personnel.

But all semblance to present day reality ends here, including images of LA, Casanova back home and the little events brochure you picked up from the front desk.

First you are led into a public area with some sort of sunroof that drops light straight to an indoor pond.

To the left is a temple-like area that is obviously a pantheon to the ancient gods owing to the huge statues of Zeus the Greek king of the gods, Venus the Roman goddess of love and mother of Cupid the god of erotic desire who often appears on Valentines Day cards as a winged baby boy with a bow and arrow.

But any thoughts of why Cupid, a “pagan” Roman god should manage to establish himself as an icon of love and romance even on the African continent slips away as you now look down to the jeans and t-shirt you are wearing just to check whether they are still there and have not transformed into a “Toga”, the ancient Roman dress worn at the time people lived in buildings such as the Villa dei Papiri.

Proceeding forward, through a huge doorway probably made of bronze, you arrive at an open, courtyard area called the inner peristyle which leads on to other galleries or the larger outer peristyle a vast fish pond-like area surrounded by lush green plants and a series of ebony statues.

Looking at how ostentatious this area is, one can now imagine why the people of Herculaneum failed to leave their paradise and run for shelter despite the warning before the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius entombed them for posterity in 79 AD.

Nonetheless, the building has 23 galleries devoted to the permanent collection which are all, organised by theme. But among the vast collection, started by late oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty himself, only 1,200 out of the 44,000 artifacts can be on display at one given time.

And in addition to the public performances and exhibitions, the Getty Villa hosts a range of scholarly activities fueled by the presence of the antiquities collection and the resources of the Getty Research Library at the villa, with a capacity of about 20,000 volumes related to the ancient world.

The villa is also home to the UCLA/Getty Master’s programme in Archaeological and Ethnographic Conservation.

This museum, besides the one with a modern art collection that includes paintings such as Irises by Vincent Van Gogh (1889) which in 1987 sold for $53.9 million (although the museum purchased it in 1990); situated at the Getty Research Institute, is in fact a mere fraction of the oil baron’s legacy to his passion for the arts and the ancient world.

Getty, an industrialist who founded the Getty Oil Company, was in 1957 named the richest living American by Fortune magazine.

At his death in 1976, he was worth more than $2 billion. Over $661 million of his estate was left to the museums after his death.

He established the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1953, the world's wealthiest art institution, which operates the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Foundation, the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institute.

All in all, pinching oneself to awaken from the fantasy of the classical Roman world of the Villa dei Papiri as well as returning to the reality of ill-funded and often badly curated public museums of beloved mother Zambia, one can only marvel at what one man’s dream and fortune can achieve by sustaining privately owned museums that allow the arts and culture of ancient worlds to be preserved for the enjoyment of present and future generations.