An internal memo to the museum’s staff over the weekend was the first to announce the decision to remove the controversial statues on Central Park West.
Protesters protesting in front of and covering the Roosevelt statue with a parachute in October of 2016 (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Years of advocacy by Indigenous groups and grassroots activists who called to remove the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) have not persuaded the museum and the city, which owns the statue, to take down the controversial monument. But now, swept by the momentum of the historic Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of racist monuments worldwide, the museum announced that the statue will finally be removed.
The news, first reported by the New York Times, came in an internal memo to the museum’s staff over the weekend. In the memo, the museum said that it has requested the city remove the statue, which the city has agreed to do.
“While the Statue is owned by the City, the Museum recognizes the importance of taking a position at this time,” the memo reads. “We believe that the Statue should no longer remain and have requested that it be moved.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio approved the request and joined the museum in a statement issued yesterday, June 21.
“The American Museum of Natural History has asked to remove the Theodore Roosevelt statue because it explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior,” de Blasio said in a statement. “The City supports the Museum’s request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue.”
The contentious statue, made by James Earle Fraser, features the former US President on horseback, flanked by two gun carriers: an Indigenous man to his right, and a Black man to his left. Unveiled in 1940, the statue was meant to “celebrate Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history,” AMNH says on its website. The former president’s father was one of the museum’s founders, the institution adds, and says it is “proud of its historic association with the Roosevelt family.”
The recent protests against the monument go back to October of 2016 when the group Decolonize This Place organized the first Anti-Columbus Day tour inside the museum with the participation of other social justice movements. As a symbolic gesture, the protesters shrouded the statue with a parachute. A year later, members of the group Monument Removal Brigade (MRB) escalated the fight against the monument when they splashed the sculpture’s base with blood-red paint. In an interview with Hyperallergic, the group described the action as a “counter-monumental gesture that does symbolic damage to the values [the statue] represents: genocide, dispossession, displacement, enslavement, and state terror.”
In response to the protests — including calls to remove the Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus Circle and the J. Marion Sims monument in Central Park, which has since been removed — de Blasio assembled an advisory commission in 2017 to review the statue and others. The Commission was unable to reach consensus but its final recommendation in 2018 was to keep the statue in place with additional interpretation and historical context.
Building on these recommendations, the museum mounted the exhibition Addressing the Statue in 2019. As part of the exhibition, a new informational plaque was added to the bronze. The plaque reads: “Some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.”
The city’s decision to remove the Roosevelt statue comes as a new wave of actions across the country has toppled Confederate and white supremacist monuments. Most recently, protesters in Raleigh, North Carolina tore down a Confederate monument at the state Capitol this past Juneteenth and hung the statue by its neck from a street light post. The night before, protesters in Portland, Oregon, pulled down a statue of George Washington and set it on fire while wrapped in a US flag.
A statement from Theodore Roosevelt IV, the former president’s great-grandson and a trustee at AMNH, signifies the shift of attitude towards these disputed monuments.
“The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice,” Roosevelt said in a statement provided to Hyperallergic.
“The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the Statue and move forward.”
In a statement today, Decolonize This Place welcomed the decision to remove the statue but reminded the city and the museum of two demands that remain unanswered: renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and “transforming the museum’s racist exhibition spaces,” in addition to repatriating humans remains and sacred objects, and “taking on the work of reparations.”
The group released a poster that shows the Roosevelt statue being removed with a crane in front of a crowd of protesters. The poster is a tribute “to all the groups and generations who have worked to remove this most hated monument from public view,” the group said.