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The bronze equestrian statue of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), which stands on the Central Park West entry plaza to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is the focus of a new exhibition, Addressing the Statue, that opened July 16 at the museum; pictured in the Akeley gallery (©AMNH/C. Chesek)

Almost two years after the 2017 fascist rally at Charlottesville around a mediocre statue of Robert E. Lee, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) opened its exhibition Addressing the Statue for an unspecified run. The statue in question is James Earle Fraser’s massive “Theodore Roosevelt Equestrian Memorial,” situated outside the Museum’s main entrance, depicting Roosevelt flanked by his gun carriers, a stereotyped Plains Indian and a generic African.

It wasn’t the museum’s fault that another “replacement theory” white supremacist, like those at Charlottesville, carried out a terrorist attacks in El Paso just a few days later. But it wasn’t unconnected either. From hate groups like Identity Evropa to Trump’s evocation of “beautiful” statues, the classicized statue has become a symbol of White supremacy.

The statue depicts Roosevelt on horseback, with a Native American man and an African man on foot on each side. It originally intended to celebrate Roosevelt as a devoted conservationist and author of works on natural history. But today many see a racial hierarchy in its composition (©AMNH/D. Finnin).

In this moment, what does it mean to “address” the Roosevelt statue? In poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, the narrator attends a lecture by the philosopher Judith Butler, who is asked why words are hurtful: “Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers. We suffer from the condition of being addressable.” The narrator observes: “After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts.”

The racist murder of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville made it clear that Confederate statues are such speech acts — and hate speech at that. Their address in public space makes people vulnerable, albeit unevenly and unequally so. In response, cities like New Orleans and Memphis took down at least some of their Confederate statues. Nationwide only some 60 statues out of a total of over 700 were removed.

In liberal New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio cautiously set up an advisory commission to review its monuments, including Roosevelt. Its subsequent report in January 2018 split on Roosevelt, calling for an “additive” approach: meaning both contextualizing work at existing monuments, and adding new monuments, like that for Shirley Chisholm. De Blasio has sided with that approach, a metonym for liberalism: small-bore, negotiated, additive projects, rather than systemic change.

The first fruits of this policy are now on view at Addressing The Statue. It’s hard to review as an exhibition. The show covers the walls of a corridor leading from the African mammals hall to the museum shop with text and a screen displaying a 15-minute video commissioned from African-American writer Reniqua Allen. There are no actual artifacts, although there are some interesting copies of archival materials from the James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser Papers at Syracuse University and the AMNH’s own archive. What predominates is text, in Twitter-length bubbles down the corridor.

Quotation of Scott Manning Stevens in the Addressing the Statue exhibition (photo by the author)

Viewers are supposed to make up their own minds after reading all this but AMNH has already decided. Curator David Hurst Thomas, from the AMNH Division of Anthropology, declares: “some today view the statue as heroic. Others see the statue as a blatant symbol of racial hierarchy. Addressing the Statue sidesteps such simplistic binary thinking in favor of multiple perspectives and multiple voices.”

In 1990s academia, this approach was known as “teaching the conflicts.” And sure enough, a New York Times review praised the show for “balance.” But it’s the “balance” of news media — always offering “both sides” — rather than the balanced judgment of the historian that’s on view.

For example, the exhibition balances Roosevelt as both a racist and the host of African-American leader Booker T. Washington at the White House. Does this in fact constitute a balance, that is, are these conflicting worldviews of equal validity or weight? A recent New York Times op-ed noted that racism was “central to Roosevelt’s vision for America, and not just an artifact of his time and place.” Indeed, he gets an entire chapter in Princeton professor Nell Irvin Painter’s History of White People. There’s no mention at AMNH of his support for eugenics or his 1905 speech that popularized the supposed threat of “race suicide.”

The bronze equestrian statue of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), which stands on the Central Park West entry plaza to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is the focus of a new exhibition, Addressing the Statue, that opened July 16 at the museum; pictured in the Akeley gallery (©AMNH).

Together with a range of other eugenic “theories” (which have long since been discredited but are once again circulating), such ideas motivated the severe immigration restrictions of the early 20th century and set the ground for eugenic sterilization. Today, they are the origin of the “replacement theory” now motivating White supremacy worldwide.

Can a viewer properly address this statue when AMNH has so framed the project? From my observations, most visitors walked through without stopping. Several used the large-scale photograph of the statue as a selfie opportunity. A minority spent time reading their way through in a very noisy location. I noticed two custodians watching the video. When I asked for their opinion, I was told they had been instructed not to talk about it.

The exhibition largely rehearses the arguments of the mayor’s commission, voiced through two commission members: Harriet Senie, a CUNY art historian against removal, and Columbia’s Mabel Wilson, a professor of architecture and African American studies, for removal. Other thoughts come from academics and museum professionals, including two Indigenous academics, Scott Stephen Mannings (Akwesasne Mohawk) and Philip Deloria (Dakota descent), and a variety of visitors to the statue (no indications as to how they were selected or what questions were used to solicit the posted responses). The protestors are given voice through NYU’s Andrew Ross, who is part of Decolonize This Place — in short, multiple perspectives.

But this is not a thorough address. To take just a few examples, curator Thomas suggests that the statue is displayed at the museum by choice of New York State. True. But then-Museum director Henry Fairfield Osborn (a promoter of eugenics and immigration restrictions) waged a five-year campaign to get it and defeat those who wanted it upstate. Unstated is that the cost to the city was $3.5 million (about $60 million in today’s money), meaning that the people own the monument, not the Museum of Natural History.

The statue depicts Roosevelt on horseback, with a Native American man and an African man on foot on each side. It originally intended to celebrate Roosevelt as a devoted conservationist and author of works on natural history. But today many see a racial hierarchy in its composition (©AMNH/D. Finnin).

Again, the show points out that AMNH hosted the Third International Congress of Eugenics in 1932, just four years before the memorial was opened. A photograph of George Washington’s genealogy from the accompanying exhibition is on display to illustrate the point. Wouldn’t it have been more pertinent to show that of Theodore Roosevelt, complete with portrait bust, also in the 1932 exhibition? Here and throughout this show, racism is disposed of as a “discredited” side effect of a past time. If only.

Finally, the outsize form of the statue noted by all was a result of Osborn’s long-held plan to create a grand easterly approach to the memorial across Central Park, an idea scotched by Robert Moses. One reason for these oversights may be that, despite the wealth of scholarly attention paid to AMNH itself, there is hardly any scholarly literature focused on the Roosevelt statue, undermining claims for its significance as a work of art.

Let’s address the statue. Why do so many people see it as signifying a “racial hierarchy,” leading to protests every decade the statue has been up? All the members of the public quoted find the statue racist, although they take different positions about removal. Even the museum’s own materials for the exhibition use the term “racial hierarchy.” The statue makes a simple visual distinction: Roosevelt is massive and on horseback, dominating the African and Native figures. Most importantly, the children interviewed get that. And it’s through such visual shocks that racism is learned.

The bronze equestrian statue of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), which stands on the Central Park West entry plaza to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is the focus of a new exhibition, Addressing the Statue, that opened July 16 at the museum; pictured in the Akeley gallery (©AMNH/C. Chesek)

While Osborn oversaw the memorial project, his goal for AMNH as a whole was to become “a speechless university” using “visual or direct education.” He deeply believed in racial hierarchy and made it visible across the museum. Are we to assume that the monument in which he invested 15 years of struggle was somehow exempt? When the statue was made, it was widely believed that there were three major racial groups: Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid, hierarchically arranged in that order. The statue clearly visualizes that racist view. In short, to use today’s jargon, what you see is what you get.

Some exhibition participants go to great lengths to transform this visible “racial hierarchy” into allegory. Harriet Senie asserts that all the statues in the Theodore Roosevelt Equestrian Memorial are “heroic … allegorical figures,” basing her claim on sculptor James Earle Fraser’s comment in the 1940 press release for the unveiling: “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” Only, the press release omitted the phrase in italics. What Fraser actually said appears to be a response to a suggestion made to him, even as it makes clear that the figures depict guides and not heroes. As for “friendliness,” all eugenics denied prejudice, as Trump does today, claiming merely to address the facts of nature.

If the supporting statues symbolize their respective continents, what was the allegory being suggested? An allegory requires a meaning that the viewer needs to construct. The most obvious available meaning is that of racialized hierarchy. That’s still visible today. But no one wanted to see it in 1940. The Second World War against Nazi Germany was under way. At the unveiling ceremony, far from dwelling on Roosevelt, keynote speaker Greville Clark warned the United States to prepare for war. It was not the time to address the statue’s racial hierarchy or the AMNH’s recent enthusiasm for eugenics, so notably adopted by Nazi Germany.

Imagine a visitor entering the museum in 1940 past the Roosevelt statue. In the lobby, they would have seen eugenicist sculptor and taxidermist extraordinaire Carl Akeley’s stereotyped bronze  group of “primitive” “Nandi Spear Men” (sculpted from African-American models) facing a group of lions; then they might look up to see William Andrew Mackay’s mural of Roosevelt on safari in Africa, beginning with the figure of Ham, son of Noah, described by the AMNH in 1944 as “cursed by his father and destined with his son and all his descendants to perpetual slavery”; and finally they would enter the Roosevelt Hall of African Mammals (as it then was called) and be confronted in the gloom with Akeley’s array of charging elephants. Osborn went to great lengths to ensure that the Africa mural was placed over the door to the Hall of African Mammals, over opposition from city officials.

It beggars belief that Osborn, an admirer of Hitler and so racist that he denied humanity had its origin in Africa, intended this “visual education” to celebrate Africa as “heroic,” rather than as a “primitive” world, whose fauna were thought to be on the verge of extinction. Not much has changed. The elephants are now sponsored by climate change denier Rebekah Mercer, member of the AMNH Board of Trustees, alongside Theodore Roosevelt IV.

I did speak to those few visitors who stopped to look at the show during the hours I was there. Most were out-of-town tourists and none had intended to visit it, except a Columbia University seminar group. Museum administrators would be pleased by the response on the whole. Many White visitors spoke unprompted of the dangers of “erasing history,” while also being disturbed by Roosevelt’s racism to Indians. That said, a Nigerian visitor was unimpressed with the claim that the statue demonstrated racial equality — “bullshit” — while two African-American women from New York were skeptical of the entire video.

Anyone can post a response to the exhibit’s website and, since the replies are bound to be tabulated for PR purposes, I would encourage everyone to do so.

What else is to be done by those of us — including half the mayor’s commission — who do see this monument as representative of a racial hierarchy? Let it firstly be admitted that we lost and this response doesn’t change that. There are art issues and political issues — and they are not separate. Liberalism has long enshrined art as part of its Bildung (cultivation) and so, by extension, any removal or destruction of art must be anti-liberal.

Art writer Aruna d’Souza has shown that when it comes to racism, for fifty years the art world has favored the asking of “difficult questions,” rather than action. AMNH has added some questioning captions to the 1939 diorama inside the Roosevelt Memorial depicting Dutch domination of the Lenape people. Four groups of NYU students studying this installation for my class all concluded that most visitors did not read them. Anecdotal as this evidence is, if a plaque with contextualizing information is placed next to the Roosevelt statue, it’s hard to imagine many stopping to read it in the crush to get in, among the queues for ice-cream and the NYPD crowd control barriers protecting the monument. And none of this gets around the crushing impact of racist depiction at first sight upon entering the museum — just as Henry Fairfield Osborn likely intended.

The plaque currently on view adjacent to the monument at the center of the Addressing the Statue exhibition (photo by the author)

Against those art historians who insist that all monuments must remain standing as part of “history,” it’s time to reassert the active making of historical analysis and understanding as constitutive of the present and future possibility. No one in these United States is about to forget half a millennium of settler colonialism and racial hierarchy. But there is still no museum of racism. The AMNH would be the obvious place to make one.

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Nick Mirzoeff

Nicholas Mirzoeff is professor of media, culture and communication at NYU. His book The Appearance of Black Lives Matter is available for free download at namepublications.org.

19 replies on “How Do We Address a Statue of President Roosevelt That Affirms Racist Hierarchies?”

  1. How do you leftwing untermenschen address a statue of Theodore Roosevelt? From your knees, groveling.

  2. I keep wanting to have a sculpture of a woman on horseback in New York City. Anita Garibaldi comes to mind. Born in Brazil and died in Italy, A passionate lover and soldier against colonialism. Bronze, life size, and a woman, Shirley Chisholm is also a wonderful hero. I want a female rider. Indiginous ethnicity also needed. and in action. I have been watching for one in every city I go to for a decade. Freedom fighter Manuela Saenz also was a good horseman, her love was Simon Bolivar. Anita Garibaldi’s was Giuseppe Garibaldi, better than Columbus, both of them.Maybe put a large sculpture of a woman on horseback not a white woman, in the other door of the museum.

    1. Sakagawea (who, being a Plains Indian, probably knew something about riding horses) and Buffalo Calf Road Woman, ditto, who fought against Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn River, knocked him off his horse, and may have killed him.

  3. What about moving the statue inside the museum so it no longer occupies a space of public honor, and making it the centerpiece of a permanent gallery display about the museum’s origins in racist ideology?

      1. Given how complicit museums have been in perpetuating and legitimizing all sorts of noxious ideologies, I can think of no better use of their precious floor space than for critical self-examination.

  4. Maybe the Museum ought first to address the billionaire climate science denying members of their Board? That is something actually destructive to the continued existence of the planet as some of those members are reported to make large donations to climate science denying organizations! Maybe the AMNH ought to consider that people who own papers like Breitbart News should not be on their Board. And here we’re worrying about statues?

    1. I recommend not making a religious test of people’s opinions about climate. While the gods are our invention and we are responsible for them, the climate, indeed, the whole solar system, is lively and very complex and has a mind (or minds) of its own, and we don’t really understand it, although we can guess some probabilities. Assumptions of omniscience can lead to embarrassing surprises.

        1. The shape of the earth is a comparatively simple problem. However, your faith is noted. You may be surprised to learn someday that science deals in probabilities and interpretations, rather than absolute revealed truths.

  5. Actually the statue is functioning very well as a ‘flashpoint’ of discussion about racism and racial hierarchy. (For some reason its blatant sexism and classism aren’t similarly flashpointed, but I guess we should take what consciousness we can get.) The Museum’s non-addressing addressing has also been critiqued here and elsewhere, and forms a kind of satellite flashpoint about which we can organize our perceptions and conclusions about the tendency of politicians and bureaucrats to try to gloss problems over in order to slither forward in quest of their ambitions. If people find the statue seriously injurious, though — being hierarchically privileged I see it as merely boring — I suggest moving it to the back yard. I suppose blowing it up might damage innocent neighboring buildings.

  6. “Erasing history…dangerous”? It certainly is and no one has erased history more than the self-appointed, self-important “recorders” and “custodians” of this country’s history…white men. Erasing everybody else’s history, but their own is what has contributed to the perpetuation of racism in this country. An old African proverb: “Until the lions tell their side of the story, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.”

  7. It’s not as if Roosevelt approved this statue. This is something that was attributed to him. Let’s not draw conclusions of who or what he was. He was indeed a man of his times and that included a lot of presumptions and prejudices which should be viewed in context. He loved killing wild animals. Today that is abhorrent. Back then it was a sport. He gave us national parks. That counts for a lot

  8. QUESTION: How Do We Address a Statue of President Roosevelt That Affirms Racist Hierarchies?
    ANSWER: Hellooo Statue.

  9. Well, at least people get to actually SEE a Native American and an African-American. Would it be more insidious if the statue was simply Teddy, alone? Is this a weird communication from the past…to the future (now)?

  10. The “multiple perspectives” approach offered by curator David Hurst Thomas is most reasonable because by applying it, we avoid judging history solely by today’s standards. Standards will continually change – and they won’t always be what we now think best.

    Mr Mirzoeff seems certain he has the absolute correct view for all times, and hopes for systemic change. Would that change include his choosing which works of art are worthy for the public’s study? Would he wipe away all works that he feels politically incorrect? After that exercise he might find all museums empty, void.

    It is the sweeping removal of statues that invigorates those people who fear “replacement.” Leave them be. Direct your energies toward actions that might truly help remove bigotry and alleviate racial inequality.

    By the way, one could read the “guides” positively. Perhaps TR acknowledged his need for guidance.

    1. It seems to me that protesting a racist statue is an action that might help remove bigotry and alleviate racial inequality, since the perceptions and arguments of the protesters might prove educational for those who (even at this late date) didn’t know what it was all about. Hence I oppose removing the statue; it should be kept around somewhere as a bad example. However, I find its placement in front of the museum rather overbearing, as if the mighty White hunter were some kind of hero we ought to worship. I’d like to see it put in the back yard, and execrated there, while in the front there could be a succession of statues (or holograms!) depicting our real natural history.

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