Last night, I walked by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and noticed the statue of Theodore Roosevelt was surrounded by police barriers, with several NYPD vans parked in the vicinity. It seems the city wanted to protect the statue, whose celebration of racism and colonialism has sparked protest and demands it come down. But those taxpayer dollars will be wasted no more: on Sunday, the museum announced they’d be removing the statue.
The New York Times reports that it was the museum’s decision to remove the statue, which has sat at its main entrance for the last 80 years; the city agreed it was time to take it down. Though the statue intends to honor Roosevelt—New York’s former governor, a U.S. President, and a famed naturalist whose father was one of the museum’s founders—it also depicts colonialism, as evidenced by the stereotypical Native American man and African man who flank the horseback-riding white man at its center. In 2017, activists splashed blood-red paint on its base, noting that the statue “is bloody at its very foundation.” And with reignited nationwide conversations about and removals of statues depicting Confederate generals, slaveholders, and genocidal explorers, the museum decided it was time to revisit Roosevelt.
Per the New York Times:
“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.
“Simply put,” she added, “the time has come to move it.”
It’s not clear where the monument will go or what will replace it, though the museum says they’ll rename the Hall of Biodiversity for Roosevelt. There is another, less overtly racist statue of Roosevelt in the museum’s Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, and the main entrance’s Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda is also named after the President—albeit, maybe even that’s a bit much, considering some of Roosevelt’s more controversial views about racial hierarchy.
The Roosevelt family reportedly approved of the statue’s removal.
I grew up in New York City not far from the American Museum of Natural History, and spent many blissful young years hanging out on the museum steps and/or browsing the exhibits inside. I did not think much about the statue, or some of the museum’s other controversial dioramas, at the time, and I wish I’d known then to interrogate them, rather than subconsciously absorb the images and their enduring message about white supremacy.
Some critics will complain that the museum is erasing history by taking down the longstanding statue. But I’m thankful future generations won’t have to see it, especially Black and Native American children who deserve to learn about dinosaur bones and the wonders of space without first being subjected to racist, stereotyped depictions of their ancestors.