Over 200 people attended the Anti-Columbus Day tour organized by Decolonize This Place at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, which featured 10 stops that highlighted the history of white supremacy and colonialism in the institution’s history and displays. The tour was directly followed by a rally around the Theodore Roosevelt statue in front of the museum as protesters demanded the removal of the sculpture. Over 200 tickets were distributed free of charge to those who attended, according to organizers. Participants gathered at the Hall of Asian Mammals on the second floor of the museum as they waited for the tour to begin.
The crowd was diverse and included many from the Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights, and other labor and social justice movements. Among those who gathered for the tour was performance artist Nia Nottage, who felt it was important to be there. “It’s really weird that Columbus Day is still recognized as a holiday, it’s obviously wrong but banks and other places close every year,” she said. “The statue is the most blatantly racist thing that I’m hoping to change today, the rest of the museum is probably going to take a while.”
Mel Evans of Liberate Tate in the UK, which is in town for the next few days, attended the event with her group. “We came today because we’ve come to the US as part of our explorations of what we can do now after we’ve removed BP from Tate. We wanted to … share our experiences with artists and activists here,” she said. “Also [we plan to] take strategic direction, as it’s an incredible time with what is happening in the US at the moment, from Standing Rock Sioux, No DAPL, to everything with Black Lives Matter. We really wanted to come over and immerse ourselves. We didn’t know what Columbus Day was, and we’re coming from that [position]. We’ve just arrived and saw that statue out front of Roosevelt … we’ve come from London, and every aspect of our lives is connected to colonial history and yet we don’t really have statues quite like that. It’s very important to be here and see all these people and see how they are challenging that because it has to be challenged. That statue has to go, or Roosevelt should be taken out of it.”
Many of those who attended the tour were equally passionate for the call to remove the”Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt” (1939), which is placed prominently at AMNH’s Central Park West entrance. Many consider the sculpture, created by James Earle Fraser, as the most visible symbol of white supremacy in New York. The statue depicts the 26th US President Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, and standing to either side of him are two men, one Native American and the other African American. Roosevelt is often seen as one of the most racist US Presidents, even if he is still associated in many people’s minds with “progressive” ideas. According to Alternet, a 1905 statement by Roosevelt “asserted that Caucasians were ‘the forward race’ destined to raise ‘the backward race[s]’ through ‘industrial efficiency, political capacity and domestic morality.’ Whites, he felt, needed to reproduce in abundance or else risk ‘race suicide.’” He also had very troubling things to say about Native Americans, including: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”
The statue has been the site of various protests and art actions over the years, including in 1971 when six Native Americans were arrested for defacing the statue with paint, in 1991 as a symbolic part of David Hammons’s “Public Enemy” installation at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 2015 as part of Black Youth Project 100’s Black Out Tour that highlighted racist histories at AMNH.
The Decolonize This Place tour incorporated stops at the “Man’s Rise to Civilization,” “Jews of Asia,” “Hall of Islam,” “Birds of the World,” and “Hall of African Peoples” display, among others. The tour guides pointed out other surprising facts, including the racists attitudes of Mahatma Gandhi, who upheld the caste system in India and espoused disdain towards Black Africans during his time in South Africa. The tour focused on the presentation of cultures and the fictions that persist. In the “Hall of Islam,” the guide pointed out the “Women of Islam”display case and explained that “there is a particular obsession with the women of Islam, who in many Westerners minds, can never be free. Why try to compartmentalize an entire culture into a singular box? This is how the other is constructed. This simplification is what allows Islamophobia to thrive. The same belief system that justifies drone strikes and the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ And lastly, where is the Hall of Christendom?”
Simultaneous to the tour, another action was taking place on the third floor of the museum in the Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians. A group of Anishinaabe women were drumming to “decolonize the space” through sound as many sacred objects in the Midewiwin tradition have been hanging in the dioramas for over 50 years.
The tour eventually made their way to the main entrance rotunda to chants of “Respect. Remove. Rename,” and they unfurled various banners, including ones that read “Decolonize This Museum” and “Abolish White Supremacy.” Various speakers spoke to the assortment of symbols in the room, including the name of the space itself, the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda. The group then left peacefully and gathered around the Roosevelt statue.
Roughly 200 protesters surrounded the sculpture with banners and placards and hoisted a parachute over the bronze statue as the crowd cheered. Activists from Black Lives Matter, the local Indigenous community, Puerto Rican independence activists, and others spoke.
Chauvet Bishop was one of the people who congregated around the Roosevelt statue. A poet and massage therapist, Bishop said she attended partly because she is interested in Decolonize This Place’s approach.
“I really like that they are looking at everybody’s cause,” Bishop told Hyperallergic. “They’re looking on a global level for what’s wrong with the planet in general … There’s no such thing as one cause, that’s the thing. Nothing is in a vacuum, nothing’s isolated. I definitely believe in the principle of Ubuntu, ‘My humanity is tied to yours. I am because you are.’”
She said the tour was powerful and she was happy she attended. “I cried a couple times … I am very sensitive to energy. I’m very sensitive to the things that have happened … It’s very heavy in there. There’s a lot of suffering still there, walking through and seeing things of my ancestors. I’m black, but I’m of very mixed heritage.
“There’s indigenous American [in me], there is Spanish, there is European, there’s African, so walking through everything and just seeing how people are put on display, how my ancestors were put on display, how some of my ancestors were not put on display, it’s very big … it hit me. It really did.”
One of the organizers for Decolonize This Place was Yates McKee, whose recent book Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition has been creating a lot of discussion around the topic of art and activism. He attended the tour and rally and he explained what the action accomplished.
“I think it re-framed the entire history of the museum in terms of its link to the history of colonialism, the history of white supremacy. It really made people see the museum itself, it’s displays, and especially the statuary,” he told Hyperallergic. “What’s exciting here, as well, is not just changing the frame of reference and our relationship to these displays that have so long been, as it were, naturalized. Also, now we have these concrete demands and we’re using it as a kind of springboard and an amplifier for these three demands around removing the statue, honoring the ancestors, and specifically changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.”
Hyperallergic reached out to AMNH but we have not yet heard back regarding the protester’s demands.
Update, Tuesday, October 11, 2pm ET: Decolonize This Place released this video of their action: