MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Early on in the movie "Black Panther," there's a confrontation in a fictional British museum. A visitor is arguing with a curator over African artifacts.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")
FRANCESCA FARIDANY: (As Museum Director) These items aren't for sale.
MICHAEL B JORDAN: (As Erik Killmonger) How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?
KELLY: A similar discussion is happening in museums around the world over the African art in their collections. Germany has plans to return art and artifacts taken from Africa during the colonial period, and last month, France announced a 20 million euro loan to the West African country of Benin for a new museum to house returned objects. Emma Jacobs reports.
EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: In 2006, France's Quai Branly museum lent a set of wooden statues and carved furniture to Benin.
MARIE-CECILE ZINSOU: People were queuing for three or four hours.
JACOBS: Marie-Cecile Zinsou established the Fondation Zinsou, the Benin museum that hosted the objects originally seized from the region by a French military expedition in 1892. People who came to the exhibition left lots of messages in the visitors' book - thank you for sharing this piece of Beninese history.
ZINSOU: But why do these objects have to go back and forth, exactly? People were really saying, like, do you think we could have them back for real soon?
JACOBS: According to the most commonly cited figures from UNESCO forum, 90 to 95% of sub-Saharan cultural artifacts are now housed outside Africa. Many, like the works from Benin, were taken during the colonial period and ended up in museums across Europe and North America.
GUIDO GRYSEELS: Some of them were brought by missionaries. Others were brought by civil servants.
JACOBS: At the Africa Museum in Belgium, director Guido Gryseels says 85% of the museum's collection comes from the country's former colony in Central Africa, the Belgian Congo.
GRYSEELS: Also, some were resulting from military expeditions and sometimes even from plundering.
JACOBS: For decades, Congolese leaders have asked for these objects to be returned. Most of their requests, and those by African countries to other museums, have been refused, with some exceptions particularly for human remains. But recent events in Europe have raised the possibility of returns at a much larger scale. Last year, French president Emmanuel Macron commissioned a study on how much African art French museums are holding and to make recommendations about what to do with it. Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr was one of the authors.
FELWINE SARR: (Foreign language spoken).
JACOBS: Sarr says the problem is you can't lend people an object that you basically stole from them. The study recommended the return of a wide range of objects taken during the colonial period by force or where there's simply no documentation of consent. The report got mixed reviews in France, where Sarr estimates there are at least 90,000 African items in museums, the vast majority in just one - the state-owned Quai Branly in Paris. Its director Stephane Martin said in an interview with radio station Europe 1 that restitution shouldn't be a dirty word but that the report was too drastic.
STEPHANE MARTIN: (Speaking French).
JACOBS: Museums, he said, should not be the hostages of the unhappy history of colonialism. The wrangling over where art comes from and where it belongs isn't new. The most famous example is Greece's long-standing dispute with the British Museum over what the British call the Elgin Marbles, sculptures from the Parthenon that have been at the London Museum for almost 200 years. Alexander Herman of the Institute of Art and Law in the UK says that in 2002, a group of directors from major international museums issued a general declaration on the topic of restitution...
ALEXANDER HERMAN: Claiming we shouldn't just be kowtowing to these claimant countries and giving everything back, and things need to be shared with a world audience, and we're the best places where this can happen.
JACOBS: That sentiment still lingers, he says. The Elgin Marbles are still in the British Museum.
HERMAN: But I think on other fronts, there is more of an openness.
JACOBS: The director of the Africa Museum in Belgium, Guido Gryseels, acknowledges that attitudes are changing.
GRYSEELS: We are fully aware that it's not normal that such a large part of the African cultural heritage is in Europe or in Western museums.
JACOBS: Gryseels says he's in discussion with his counterpart in the Congo to return works. In France, some press coverage has suggested returns could leave vacant shelves in French museums. Cecile Fromont, a French historian of Central African art, says that's not going to happen.
CECILE FROMONT: We are talking about hundreds of thousands of objects.
JACOBS: One way of thinking about it, she says, is that more African art can go on display.
FROMONT: As somebody who wants to champion the display and study of the expressive arts of the African continent, if we can get more objects on view in more settings, in more museums, in more places around the world, that sounds like a great solution.
JACOBS: For now, those wooden objects from Benin are back at the Quai Branly. It will take an act of the French Parliament to release them from the museum's collections and another law to allow for wider permanent returns. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.