NEW YORK — The bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt, on horseback and flanked by a Native American man and an African man, which has presided over the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York since 1940, is coming down.
The decision, proposed by the museum and agreed to by New York City, which owns the building and property, came after years of objections from activists and at a time when the killing of George Floyd has initiated an urgent nationwide conversation about racism.
For many, the “Equestrian” statue at the museum’s Central Park West entrance had come to symbolize a painful legacy of colonial expansion and racial discrimination.
“Over the last few weeks, our museum community has been profoundly moved by the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd,” the museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, said in an interview. “We have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism.
Futter made clear that the museum’s decision was based on the statue itself — namely its “hierarchical composition”— and not on Roosevelt himself, whom the museum continues to honor as “a pioneering conservationist.”
“Simply put,” she added, “the time has come to move it.”
The museum took action amid a heated national debate over the appropriateness of statues or monuments that first focused on Confederate symbols like Robert E. Lee and has now moved on to a wider arc of figures, from Christopher Columbus to Winston Churchill.
Last week alone, a crowd set fire to a statue of George Washington in Portland, Oregon, before pulling it to the ground. Gunfire broke out during a protest in Albuquerque to demand the removal of a statue of Juan de Oñate, the despotic conquistador of New Mexico. And New York City Council members demanded that a statue of Thomas Jefferson be removed from City Hall.
In many of those cases, the calls for removal were made by protesters who say the images are too offensive to stand as monuments to American history. The decision about the Roosevelt statue is different, made by a museum that, like others, had previously defended — and preserved — such portraits as relics of their time that however objectionable, could perhaps serve to educate. It was then seconded by the city, which had the final say.
“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,” Mayor Bill 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.”
When the monument will be taken down, where it will go and what, if anything, will replace it, remain undetermined, officials said.
A Roosevelt family member released a statement approving the removal.
“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,” said Theodore Roosevelt IV, 77, a great-grandson of the 26th president and a museum trustee. “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 compensatory gesture, the museum is naming its Hall of Biodiversity for Roosevelt “in recognition of his conservation legacy,” Futter said.
Theadore Roosevelt Sr., the president’s father, was a founding member of the institution; its charter was signed in his home. Roosevelt’s childhood excavations were among the museum’s first artifacts. New York’s state Legislature in 1920 chose the museum as the site to memorialize the former president.
The museum already has several spaces named after Roosevelt, including Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda and Theodore Roosevelt Park outside.
“It’s very important to note that our request is based on the statue, that is the hierarchical composition that’s depicted in it,” Futter said. “It is not about Theodore Roosevelt who served as Governor of New York before becoming the 26th president of the United States and was a pioneering conservationist.”
Critics, though, have pointed to Roosevelt’s opinions about racial hierarchy, his support of eugenics theories and his pivotal role in the Spanish-American War. Some see Roosevelt as an imperialist whose role leading troops fighting in the Caribbean ultimately resulted in American expansion into colonies there and in the Pacific including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines.
A nationalist, Roosevelt in his later years became overtly racist, historians say, endorsing sterilization of the poor and the intellectually disabled.
The statue — created by an American sculptor, James Earle Fraser — was one of four memorials in New York that a city commission reconsidered in 2017, ultimately deciding after a split decision to leave the statue in place and to add context.
The museum tried to add that context with an exhibition last year, “Addressing the Statue,” which explored its design and installation, the inclusion of the figures walking beside Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s racism. The museum also examined its own potential complicity, in particular its exhibitions on eugenics in the early 20th century.
“I’m glad to see it go,” said Mabel O. Wilson, a Columbia University professor who served on the city commission to reconsider the statue and was consulted on the exhibition.
“The depiction of the Indigenous and the African trailing behind Roosevelt, who is strong and virile,” she added, “was clearly a narrative of white racial superiority and domination.”
The exhibition was partly a response to the defacing of the statue by protesters, who in 2017 splashed red liquid representing blood over the statue’s base. The protesters, who identified themselves as members of the Monument Removal Brigade, later published a statement on the internet calling for its removal as an emblem of “patriarchy, white supremacy and settler-colonialism.”
“Now the statue is bleeding,” the statement said. “We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation.”
The group also said the museum should “rethink its cultural halls regarding the colonial mentality behind them.”
At the time, the museum said complaints should be channeled through de Blasio’s commission to review city monuments and that the museum was planning to update its exhibits. The institution has since undertaken a renovation of its North West Coast Hall in consultation with native nations from the North West Coast of Canada and Alaska.
In January, the museum also moved the Northwest Coast Great Canoe from its 77th Street entrance into that hall, to better contextualize it. The museum’s Old New York diorama, which includes a stereotypical depiction of Lenape leaders, now has captions explaining why the display is offensive.
De Blasio has made a point of rethinking public monuments to honor more women and people of color — an undertaking led largely by his wife, Chirlane McCray, and the She Built NYC commission. But these efforts have also been controversial, given complaints about the transparency of the process and the public figures who have been excluded, namely Mother Cabrini, a patron saint of immigrants who had drawn the most nominations in a survey of New Yorkers.
On Friday, the mayor announced that McCray would lead a Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission whose brief would include reviewing the city’s potentially racist monuments.
Though the debates over many of these statues have been marked by rancor, the Natural History Museum seems unconflicted about removing the Roosevelt monument that has greeted its visitors for so long.
“We believe that moving the statue can be a symbol of progress in our commitment to build and sustain an inclusive and equitable society,” Futter said. “Our view has been evolving. This moment crystallized our thinking and galvanized us to action.”