Roosevelt statue to be moved from natural history museum in New York City

The Theodore Roosevelt statue has been the target of protests from those who see it as a symbol of colonialism. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In June, the New York City Public Design Commission made its decision. After more than 80 years presiding over the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, the bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt, on horseback and flanked by a Native American man and an African man, was coming down.

Now, the statue's future home has been identified. It is set to head to Medora, North Dakota, where it will eventually be displayed at the new Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library - located near Roosevelt's former Badlands cattle ranches - as a long-term loan from the city of New York.

"Museums are supposed to do hard things," Mr Edward O'Keefe, chief executive of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, said in a statement on Nov 19. "Our job is to forthrightly examine history to understand the present and make a better future."

The library, slated to open in 2026 in Medora - which has a population of 129 - will offer distance in both years and miles from the statue's perch at the entrance of one of New York City's most prominent museums.

Designed by American sculptor James Earle Fraser, the statue has stood on the steps of the museum, overlooking Central Park West, since 1940. In recent years, however, it has been the target of protests from those who see it as a symbol of colonialism.

"Height is power in public art, and Roosevelt's stature on his noble steed visibly expresses dominance and superiority over the Native American and African figures," a mayoral panel reviewing monuments and markers on city-owned property wrote in a 2018 report. It ultimately decided to leave the statue in place, with added context.

The statue will be in storage until it is displayed when the library opens.

With the support of the Roosevelt family, the library will also establish an advisory council comprising representatives of indigenous and black people, as well as historians, scholars and artists, to determine how to recontextualise the statue.

"It is fitting that the statue is being relocated to a place where its composition can be recontextualised to facilitate difficult, complex and inclusive discussions," Mr Theodore Roosevelt V, a great-great-grandson of the former president, said in a statement.

The arrangement came about after the Public Design Commission voted unanimously in June to remove the statue and relocate it to a cultural institution dedicated to the life and legacy of the former president. The museum had recognised that the depiction was problematic and, after years of objections from activists and amid an urgent nationwide conversation about racism, proposed removing the statue in June last year (2020). New York City, which owns the building and property, agreed to the suggestion, and Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed his support.

The president of the American Museum of Natural History, Ms Ellen Futter, said the museum anticipates that the removal process, which will take several months, will begin later this year.

The announcement comes amid debate in the United States over the appropriateness of statues or monuments that first focused on Confederate officials such as Robert E. Lee, before expanding to a broader set of figures, such as Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill.

Last month, city officials voted unanimously to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from New York City Council chambers, citing his history as a slaveholder, and several other Jefferson statues have been removed or destroyed in the last year, including ones in Oregon and Georgia. The New York City Council statue will find a home at the New York Historical Society.

The American Museum of Natural History has also been re-evaluating displays in its halls.

In January last year (2020), the museum moved the Northwest Coast Great Canoe from its 77th Street entrance into that hall to better contextualise it. The museum's Old New York diorama, which includes a stereotypical depiction of Lenape leaders, also now has captions explaining why the display is offensive.

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