An equestrian bronze of former US President Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City is no stranger to controversy. Activists have long denounced the racist implications of its composition, which features a towering Roosevelt flanked by an unnamed African and an unnamed Native American figure in positions of servitude. Last summer, as protests for racial justice swept the nation, the museum and the city announced their joint decision to have the sculpture removed with the Roosevelt family’s support.
A year later, however, the contested monument still stands, its impending relocation stalled by a series of bureaucratic obstacles and questions over the work’s destination. A recent Gothamist report detailed the delays that have kept the sculpture on its plinth, which sits on city land and is thus subject to public hearings that began only last month.
This morning, the NYC Public Design Commission finally voted on the work’s removal, unanimously approving a proposal to move the statue to an institution dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory.
The binding vote comes after two previous hearings held by Community Board 7 and the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in May and June respectively, both of which considered the heated public debate surrounding the work’s removal. Those who oppose its relocation claim that contemporary interpretations of the monument overlook sculptor James Earle Fraser’s stated intent in 1940 to present “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.”
But the clear hierarchical structure of the statue “appears to depict the superiority of the white race,” said AMNH’s Vice President of Government Affairs Dan Slippen during this morning’s meeting. Its placement at the entrance of the museum, he continued, suggests “endorsement of this content and perceived content, undermining the museum’s mission.”
Because the bronze is just one element of a larger Roosevelt memorial housed at AMNH, encompassing the museum’s Central Park West entrance, a rotunda, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, plans for its removal have also required rethinking the overall space. Lakan Cole, an associate at Higgins Quasebarth & Partners who spoke this morning, said the monument compromises the multifaceted legacy that the memorial honors, and that its removal “would not diminish but rather strengthen the whole.”
A proposal introduced today by Rolando Kraeher of Studio Kareher Architects would replace the space around the statue with a “simple and minimal” design that involves installing a bronze ribbon in the shape of the statue’s stone pedestal on the plaza’s granite pavement — what Kraeher described as “an echo of the relocated sculpture.”
“These designs will be compatible with the plaza’s original materials of stone and bronze, but also distinguishable as a modern intervention, visually and conceptually minimalist, while conveying an openness that will allow the opportunity for individual reflection on the removal,” said Cole.
The activist organization Decolonize This Place (DTP), one of the groups that has advocated for the equestrian statue’s removal, says “we should remember that the AMNH itself is a monument to Roosevelt.”
“For years, there have been three clear demands on the AMNH and the city: the removal of Roosevelt, the replacement of Columbus Day by Indigenous People’s Day, and an overhaul of the entire framework of the AMNH, which is in its very roots a colonial and racist institution,” DTP told Hyperallergic. In 2016, the group held an “Anti-Columbus Day” tour of the museum, identifying ties to colonialism and white supremacy in 10 of its displays.
Another challenge has been finding a new home for the disgraced monument. The location, still undetermined as of this morning’s meeting, must be “publicly accessible and [have] a relevant connection,” said Signe Nielsen, Landscape Architect member of the Public Design Commission. Several sites dedicated to Roosevelt’s memory fit those requirements, including the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, and his presidential library in North Dakota. Upon removal, the work will remain crated and stored until the institution is selected, Nielsen said.
“The Museum is pleased that the Public Design Commission voted unanimously to approve relocation of the Equestrian Statue,” a spokesperson for AMNH told Hyperallergic. “We thank the multiple City agencies that have been involved in developing and reviewing this proposal.”
While DTP welcomed the outcome of today’s vote, the group says it is “alarmed by the idea that this monument to white supremacy and empire would be afforded the comfort of being placed in a museum.”
“The city’s decision to have it removed was forced by years of organizing by groups and communities harmed by the legacies it represents,” DTP told Hyperallergic. “Those same groups and communities should have a meaningful say in what becomes of this toxic object. Simply changing its location but allowing its harmful effects to continue is unacceptable.”