Sean Decatur will lead the American Museum of Natural History. (photo John Noltner, courtesy Kenyon College)

Sean Decatur, the president of Ohio’s Kenyon College, will be the next director of New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), making him the first Black person to lead the institution. In April, Decatur will take over from Ellen Futter, who has been at the helm of the AMNH since 1993, a role that made her the first woman to lead a major New York City museum.

Decatur has been president of Kenyon since 2013, and before assuming leadership of the Ohio liberal arts college, he worked as a professor of biophysical chemistry. This will be his first time presiding over a museum.

“I feel as if everything I’ve done in life has led up to the tremendous privilege, responsibility, and opportunity of heading the American Museum of Natural History,” Decatur said in an AMNH statement today, December 7. He added that the museum is ready to tackle the next “crucial challenges,” which he said include “everything from scientific research to supporting public education, and to expanding access.”

The Roosevelt statue outside AMNH splashed with red paint in an action by the Monument Removal Brigade in 2017 (courtesy of the Monument Removal Brigade)

The last few years have not been without controversy at the museum, where Decatur will inherit a record of workforce struggles. In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost half of the museum’s staff was affected by layoffs and furloughs. Two years later, citing a lack of job security and low pay, AMNH staff voted to unionize, and over 100 workers joined their 78 colleagues who were already members of Local 1559 chapter of DC 37.

And in January, the institution finally removed the racist Theodore Roosevelt statue that long stood outside its entrance, a bronze sculpture that depicted the former US president flanked by two smaller Black and Indigenous figures. The statue, erected in 1940, was a point of contention for decades and repeatedly doused with fake blood in protests going as far back as the 1970s.

Even after the sculpture was removed, criticism arose over its intended destination. The work would travel to the privately funded Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota, near Roosevelt’s former ranch and namesake national park, parts of which encompass land taken from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) people in the mid-19th century. Protestors called for the statue to instead be destroyed.

Decatur will assume his new post in April 2023.

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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