The Theodore Roosevelt statue outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York, defaced with red paint (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt at New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was splashed with red paint minutes after midnight this morning, October 6. The guerrilla action comes days before the annual Indigenous Peoples’ Day (or Columbus Day) on October 11, which has seen large protests against the controversial monument in previous years.

In the wee hours, unidentified protesters splattered blood-red paint at the plinth of the 1939 bronze and the museum’s stairs. Earlier, the museum had been packed with hundreds of prestigious guests attending the 2021 PEN America’s Literary Gala. AMNH has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

The action took place minutes after midnight when unidentified protesters splashed blood-red paint at the plinth of the 1939 bronze and the museum’s stairs

In June of 2020, amid the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, AMNH announced that it would remove the long-disputed statue after years of protests by Indigenous groups and grassroots activists. The decision, proposed by the museum and accepted by New York City, was first shared in an internal memo to staff that was revealed by the New York Times. However, the statue still stands more than a year after the decision was made.

Made by James Earle Fraser, the contested statue features the former US President on horseback, flanked by two unnamed gun carriers: an Indigenous man to his right, and a Black man to his left. Unveiled in 1940, the statue was meant to “celebrate Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history,” AMNH says on its website. The former president’s father was one of the museum’s founders, the institution states, adding that it is “proud of its historic association with the Roosevelt family.”

The statue still stands more than a year and a half after the museum decided to remove it

According to the Gothamist, a series of bureaucratic hurdles, including two inconclusive hearings, delayed the statue’s removal. It was only in June that 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.

In 2017, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio formed an advisory commission to review the Roosevelt statue and other racist monuments across the city. After failing to reach a consensus, the committee’s final recommendation in 2018 was to keep the statute in place with additional interpretation and historical context. Building on those recommendations, the museum mounted the exhibition Addressing the Statue in 2019. As part of the exhibition, a new informational plaque was added to the bronze. The plaque reads: “Some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.”

In 2019, the museum added a plaque that reads: “Some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.”

Protests against the monument date back to 1970s. In October of 2016, the group Decolonize This Place organized the first Anti-Columbus Day tour inside the museum with other activist groups. As a symbolic gesture, the protesters shrouded the statue with a parachute. In 2017, the statue’s plinth was defaced with red paint by members of the group Monument Removal Brigade (MRB). Throughout the years, the activist groups repeated calls on the museum and the city to rename Columbus Day, remove the Roosevelt monument, and “respect ancestors.”

Protests against the offending monument date back to the 1970s

“Other big cities have been proactive in removing offensive monuments and renaming Columbus Day,” Decolonize This Place, which said it had no involvement with today’s action, wrote in a comment to Hyperallergic this morning. “What is wrong with New York? It’s been 16 months since the Mayor agreed to take away the Roosevelt triptych, and he still has not moved to properly recognize Indigenous Peoples Day.”

“The delay is inexcusable, and pours insult on injury,” the group added. “Rename, Remove, and Respect the Ancestors!”

Editor’s note: 10:55am EST: An earlier version of this article stated that the Roosevelt statue was defaced for the first time in 2017. This has been removed, as vandalism of the monument is documented as early as 1971.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...