City eyes removal of Theodore Roosevelt statue from American Museum of Natural History

For 80 years, the likeness of former President Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by Native American and African figures, has greeted visitors to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on the Upper West Side.

But the statue has been a subject of controversy in recent years, as it depicts what the museum describes as a “hierarchal composition that places one figure on horseback, and the others walking alongside.” Some have interpreted this composition as inherently racist.

While it sits right outside the museum, the Theodore Roosevelt monument belongs to the city, not the AMNH. City government commissioned the statue in 1925 and unveiled 15 years later, on city property, as part of a larger tribute to the nation’s 26th president, former New York governor, former New York City police commissioner, hero of the Spanish-American War and a staunch conservationist.

Even so, the museum believes the time has come for the controversial statue to go. On Sunday, it formally asked New York City to have the Theodore Roosevelt monument removed.

The call comes at a moment in history, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, where Americans are demanding the removal of public statues deemed racist or in tribute to abhorrent figures in history, such as confederate war generals.

Removing the statue is not about extracting Roosevelt’s legacy, the museum insisted. The AMNH houses New York State’s official memorial to Roosevelt, and the Roosevelt family has a long-time association with the institution; Theodore Roosevelt IV, the former president’s great-grandson, serves as a museum trustee. The Museum’s Hall of Biodiversity will be renamed in the 26th president’s honor.

“We recognize that more work is needed to better understand not only the statue, but our own history,” the museum said in a statement Sunday. “As we strive to advance our institution’s, our city’s and our country’s passionate quest for racial justice, we believe that removing the statue will be a symbol of progress and of our commitment to build and sustain an inclusive and equitable museum.”

Cops from the 20th Precinct keep an eye on the statue from mischief near the Theodore Roosevelt monument at the American Museum of Natural History on June 22, 2020. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

This isn’t the first time the Roosevelt statue’s removal was considered. Between 2017 and 2018, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers mulled removing the monument, but ultimately failed to reach a consensus on whether to do so. The city instead directed the AMNH to provide “additional interpretation and context” to the statue.

That led to the formation of the “Addressing the Statue” exhibit at the AMNH, which explains its history and “contemporary reactions” to it.

“We are proud of that work, which helped advance our and the public’s understanding of the statue and its history and promoted dialogue about important issues of race and cultural representation,” the AMNH statement noted, “but in the current moment, it is abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient.”

There were no immediate details as to how soon the statue might come down.

During his Monday morning press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a reporter that his office would consider the AMNH request, while also acknowledging that the issue with the memorial is “a separate question between [Roosevelt] and the actual statue.” The mayor says the monument, in its current form, “has representations that clearly do not represent today’s values.”

“The statue clearly, you know, presents a white man as superior to people of color. And that’s just not acceptable in this day and age, never should have been acceptable,” de Blasio said. “So, I know that the museum feels it’s best to take it down, I support that decision. I think you know, they felt that’s what was right for them as a museum. And I understand why they’re doing it and I respect it.”

With reporting by Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech.

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