Addressing the Statue
July 16, 2019 — January 23, 2022
Akeley Gallery, 1st Floor
Ticket reservations are required. Facial coverings are strongly recommended. See Health and Safety.
July 16, 2019 — January 23, 2022
Akeley Gallery, 1st Floor
June 21, 2020: The Museum requested that the Equestrian Statue be moved. The full statement from the Museum read:
June 21, 2020
Over the last few weeks, our Museum community has been profoundly moved by the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd. We also have watched as the attention of the world and the country has increasingly turned to statues and monuments as powerful and hurtful symbols of systemic racism.
The Equestrian Statue that sits on New York City public park land in front of the Museum’s Central Park West entrance is part of the New York State memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, who served as Governor of New York State before becoming the 26th President of the United States. The Statue has long been controversial because of the hierarchical composition that places one figure on horseback and the others walking alongside, and many of us find its depictions of the Native American and African figures and their placement in the monument racist.
From 2017 to 2018, the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers considered whether to remove the Statue along with two other New York City monuments and one historical marker. The Commission did not reach consensus on the Statue, and the City directed that it should stay in place with additional interpretation and context to be provided by the Museum.
Last year, the Museum opened Addressing the Statue, an exhibition about the history of the Statue and contemporary reactions to it. We are proud of that work, which helped advance our and the public’s understanding of the Statue and its history and promoted dialogue about important issues of race and cultural representation, but in the current moment, it is abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient.
While the Statue is owned by the City, the Museum recognizes the importance of taking a position at this time. We believe that the Statue should no longer remain and have requested that it be moved.
The Museum will remain the site of New York State’s official memorial to Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt Family has a long association with the Museum, beginning with the President’s father and continuing with his great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, who serves as a Museum Trustee. And, in honor of Theodore Roosevelt’s role as a leading conservationist, the Museum’s Hall of Biodiversity will be named for him.
We recognize that more work is needed to better understand not only the Statue, but our own history. As we strive to advance our institution’s, our City’s, and our country’s passionate quest for racial justice, we believe that removing the Statue will be a symbol of progress and of our commitment to build and sustain an inclusive and equitable Museum community and broader society.
June 2021: The New York City Public Design Commission unanimously approved the relocation of the Equestrian Statue.
November 2021: The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation and the City of New York reached an agreement for long-term loan and reconsideration of the Equestrian Statue.
January 2022: The Equestrian Statue was moved from the Museum’s front steps.
The Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned in 1925 to stand on the steps of the Museum, on city-owned property. It was unveiled to the public in 1940, as part of a larger New York State memorial to former N.Y. governor and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.
The statue was meant to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) as a devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history. Roosevelt’s father was one of the Museum’s founders, and the Museum is proud of its historic association with the Roosevelt family.
At the same time, the statue itself communicates a racial hierarchy that the Museum and members of the public have long found disturbing. What is the meaning of this statue? And how should we view this historic sculpture today?
[TITLE: PERSPECTIVES ON THE EQUESTRIAN STATUE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT]
NARRATOR: Each year, nearly 5 million people visit the American Museum of Natural History. Most pass by a controversial statue memorializing former Governor of New York and US President Theodore Roosevelt.
PHILIP DELORIA (DAKOTA DESCENT, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, HARVARD UNIVERSITY): It’s hard to get perspective on the statue. You really have to be standing in the park across the street to actually get much perspective. And when you do, you see this kind of heroic figure on top of the horse. Teddy Roosevelt, as we’ve come to know him and love him with a bandana and his Rough Rider kind of gear. And then there’s the two figures, which I think many people miss. This Indian figure on one side and African figure on the other. There’s something that’s itchy about the statue, that rubs us the wrong way, that’s just not quite right.
DEVYN COLTER-LAFOREY (NEW YORK CITY STUDENT): When I started to look at the statue, I was just paying attention to the horse. I was just like, oh a horse. But then I started paying attention to the people and I was like, oh, like, there is one person at the top and then the other two are at the bottom.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, RICE UNIVERSITY): It’s a beautifully rendered equestrian statue, but the symbolism of the statue is always problematic.
JOHN (MUSEUM VISITOR): First impressions of the statue are that it’s a magnificent piece of work, and that it's massive.
ALEXANDRIA (MUSEUM VISITOR): It’s a reminder of this country’s history and what we don’t want to talk about.
GERRY (MUSEUM VISITOR): It’s solidified what happened to some of my own ancestors.
GREG (MUSEUM VISITOR): It could be seen as a friendship. I don’t know.
RAYMOND (MUSEUM VISITOR): It looks good right in front of the museum also. So I’m not—it’s a nice, like, you can take nice selfies.
TOM (MUSEUM VISITOR): The fact that the African is naked or practically naked, we’re calling them a primitive society.
ALEXANDRIA (MUSEUM VISITOR): I know it hurts a lot of my people in particular, it hurts a lot of minorities in general.
NARRATOR: People have protested the statue for decades. And today these voices are intensifying.
SHAWNEE RICE: We’re here to show our dislike for that statue and say our demands that we wish for it to come down.
ANDREW ROSS (DIRECTOR OF AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAM, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, : When I look at the statue, I do see a commentary about white supremacy. It has acquired that reputation as being a monument to racial supremacy.
MONIQUE RENEE SCOTT (DIRECTOR OF MUSEUM STUDIES, BRYN MAWR, CONSULTING SCHOLAR, PENN MUSEUM): It represents a racial hierarchy. And it pains me that that might be part of the experience entering the museum.
MABEL O. WILSON (PROFESSOR OF ARCHITECTURE AND AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY): The fact that monuments and memorials in New York are controversial isn’t new. They often become, because it’s public space, sites of protest, places to rally, places to celebrate. That is the role of public space. It’s a space of contestation.
DAVID HURST THOMAS (CURATOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY): Statues are powerful things and we're taking a hard look at our history and how do we deal with that?
[CHAPTER TITLE: THE MAKING OF THE STATUE]
NARRATOR: After Roosevelt died in 1919, the state of New York set out to create a memorial to honor him as a “nature lover, explorer and author of natural history.
DAVID HURST THOMAS: The state of New York wanted to memorialize T.R. as one of the great New Yorkers. It made sense to the Museum of Natural History because the Roosevelts had such a great history here. Our charter was signed in 1869 in his father's parlor.
SCOTT MANNING STEVENS (AKWESASNE MOHAWK, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND NATIVE AMERICAN STUDIES & INDIGENOUS STUDIES, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY): He was a blue-blood kid from an aristocratic New York family who goes on to live rough on the range as a kind of cowboy. There's the Rough Rider legacy of him on San Juan Hill that makes him a war hero. At the time he was a larger than life adventure hero type of figure. Yes, he was a naturalist, yes, he was kind of explorer, but he was also the president.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: He is our great conservation president. During his tenure in office, he saved over 234 million acres of wild America—places like the Grand Canyon, Muir Woods. This is part of the enduring legacy of Theodore Roosevelt.
NARRATOR: Architect John Russell Pope won a competition to design the memorial at the Museum, consisting of a new building, murals and other works of art. Sculptor James Earle Fraser was chosen to execute Pope’s vision of the statue, which was unveiled in 1940.
HARRIET F. SENIE (DIRECTOR, MA ART HISTORY, ART MUSEUM STUDIES, THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK): Pope specified an equestrian monument, Roosevelt on the horse and two figures standing next to him. And the entire group, not just Roosevelt, was intended to be heroic. The allegorical figures and these are Fraser’s words, may stand for “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” The figures represent the continents on which he hunted, as either gun bearers or guides or both. People referred to this figure as an African American—that’s totally impossible. We know he represented the continent of Africa.
PHILIP DELORIA: The African figure is conjectural, in a way. It’s sort of not known. So you get a sort of classical kind of body figure, very stripped down, without much in the way of accoutrements. A sort of robe that leaves the figure more exposed. The Indian figure has detail on it, the blanket, it has a beautiful medallion, the headdress has some detail in it. So the Indian figure is known in that sense.
HARRIET F. SENIE: He was probably intended to represent a Plains Indian warrior. There is a kind of freedom of interpretation, because it represents more than a single portrait. It’s a composite of many tribes.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP (SCULPTOR): The positive aspect of the statue is that it's done with great skill. The artist was very competent and knew how to show Roosevelt as the powerful figure, by putting everybody else in his wake.
MABEL O. WILSON: Here was Theodore Roosevelt, great American figure, stalwart, riding on his horse. I mean he’s holding the horse, it’s reined. It always to me seemed like a narrative of domestication. Like the horse has been tamed, the Native American, the indigenous populations had been tamed. The conquest of the African continent was also about sort of taming the savage, right? The savage beast. And that was the narrative that was communicated to me.
PHILIP DELORIA: For an American Indian person looking at the monument, there's an experience of pain that comes with it. The Indian figure is sort of cast as this sort of vanishing, disappearing figure of the past. To see that representation, and to understand that the representation has had all kinds of consequences, it’s not a pleasant experience.
DEVYN LAFOREY-COLTER: I don’t feel offended by the statue, I feel like they did something wrong with the statue. It’s not right.
DANA LAFOREY (NEW YORK CITY RESIDENT): Maybe the intention had been to make awareness of Native Americans and Africans but it just came off all wrong.
DEVYN LAFOREY-COLTER: It would have been better if the two guys were both on horses, because then it would have been like, we’re all like equal and all the same.
SCOTT MANNING STEVENS: The sculptor, James Earle Fraser, I don't think he means a slight against native America or Africa, but we are so distant from his mind as living cultures. We’re the symbols of primitivism, we’re symbols of nature.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP: I think that their faces are dignified, but at what cost? Because they don’t seem like free men. I see colonial power.
HARRIET F. SENIE: The standing figures were taken to somehow be lesser than Roosevelt, because he’s on the horse and they’re standing on the ground. That of course looks extremely prejudicial. That’s how we would see it today. If we see it in the historical context and we see the two standing figures as having allegorical content, both representing continents and representing figures who would have assisted Roosevelt on his hunt, then we see it in a different context.
MABEL O. WILSON: I think Fraser as a sculptor meant to depict them in a very sympathetic way, with dignity. You don’t see the “cigar store Indian” as they were called, you don’t see you know, the comic African with the bone in his nose. It’s a beautifully crafted work of art. But there’s always an aesthetics to race.
[CHAPTER TITLE: ROOSEVELT AND RACE]
ANDREW ROSS: Roosevelt was seen as a champion of conservationist science. Conservationism gave us our national park system and Roosevelt's probably best remembered for that. Most people don't know that a lot of these national parks were made possible by the evacuation of indigenous populations.
PHILIP DELORIA: Roosevelt says something like this, I’m not gonna go so far as to say that the only good Indian is a dead Indian but in nine of ten cases, I believe that to be the case, and in the tenth case, well, you know. So you couldn’t call him a friend of the Indian.
MABEL O. WILSON: I would absolutely call Theodore Roosevelt a racist. His views on race come out of his class position, come from a certain moment where that particular class had an extraordinary amount of wealth and power at the turn of the 20th century.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: You have to look at people at their time period and Theodore Roosevelt, 1901 to 1909, if you’re comparing him, he was quite enlightened. And he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House and this created a huge outrage. Never before an African American sat in the White House, and T.R. got hammered for this. After his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt goes to Africa. Who else in America was doing that? On the other hand, he was an imperialist figure there. When you read some of his writings you cringe because it has such a feeling of white supremacy. It shows a portrait of somebody feeling that tribal people of Africa are not very high on his Darwinian scale.
MABEL O. WILSON: He had very specific views around which races, the Nordic, the Alpine, were going to lead civilization forward. And then there were those that you didn’t want to mate with. Roosevelt was very much a part of that debate around whether or not you could actually breed better humans. This field’s called eugenics which also became very popular.
NARRATOR: The American Museum of Natural History was also involved in this misguided movement, hosting two conferences with displays in the 1920s and 1930s.
ANDREW ROSS: You can take your pick of American presidents who have perpetuated theories of racial segregation and racial subordination. He wouldn't be the first that would come to mind. But the placement of the statue, the existence of the monument, the dialogue that it generates with the public, combined with the colonial framing of the museum itself, is what makes it distinctive. And that's what makes it so problematic.
[CHAPTER TITLE: THE FUTURE OF THE STATUE]
PROTESTOR: Show me what democracy looks like. Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.
DAVID THOMAS: I’ve been here for parts of five decades, and every one of those decades we’ve had protest against the TR statue. The political reality is that that statue is where it is because that's where the state of New York wanted it.
ALEKSANDRA (MUSEUM VISITOR): I think statues should be where they are.
NIGEL (MUSEUM VISITOR): Should this be on the main street? Should this be in the front of the museum? No, I would put a dinosaur over here. Something, anything else but this.
NILES (MUSEUM VISITOR): I’d leave it up for sure.
OLIVIA (MUSEUM VISITOR): They’re still a part of history. I don’t believe they should be destroyed but I definitely think they should be taken down.
JOHN (MUSEUM VISITOR): Leave it as it is, and let it you know let it represent the time that it was made and we know better now.
JEREMY (MUSEUM VISITOR): I think I would move it inside the museum and put something else here.
GERRY (MUSEUM VISITOR): I don’t know if it necessarily needs to be taken down, because if we if we take it down, then we erase what happened. And we cannot really erase what happened. We’ve just gotta like be able to move forward.
NARRATOR: In 2017, the Mayor of New York formed a Commission to examine troubling monuments throughout the city. But the Commission was unable to come to a consensus on what to do about the Roosevelt statue. The Mayor decided the statue would remain with additional context, and the possibility of adding new works of art.
MABEL O. WILSON: I voted to remove the statue. I thought it should be removed elsewhere on grounds, not be removed entirely, but moved elsewhere and then contextualized.
HARRIET F. SENIE: I, personally, would be opposed to removing things. I think it’s better to expand the people that are being honored in our public spaces.
ANDREW ROSS: I would remove it from public view. I think it would be a long overdue act of racial healing in this city. I don't think it deserves to really occupy that prominent position any longer.
SCOTT MANNING STEVENS: I'm not inclined to tear things down because I really sincerely believe it erases history, and history is hard and unpleasant. But we need to talk about it.
SOKARI DOUGLAS CAMP: I think it's wonderful that there is a conversation about what we're seeing because there are so many different views now. And I think the conversation can change because of education and what we hope for in the future. So I mean that's the power of sculpture, says the sculptor.
MONIQUE RENEE SCOTT: Museums should not simplify stories, we should complicate them. Teddy Roosevelt deserves to be memorialized for his contributions to conservation. We should also acknowledge his race politics. These were complicated figures.
PHILIP DELORIA: It’s not an attack on the legacy of Roosevelt, but it is a request that we think about what we put on display in light of what we do and how we think and how we feel in the present moment. Let’s think about, sort of, ways in which we commemorate, but also look to the future.
MABEL O. WILSON: Now that our politics are becoming more diverse, people are asking, can we have different representations of people and events in histories? Not a single history, but multiple histories. And monuments and markers in the United States, I think, can speak to those multiple histories.
As part of a national conversation about problematic public monuments, and following the report of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, the Museum is providing new context and perspectives, presenting the history and rationale for the statue while explicitly acknowledging its troubling aspects.
To understand the statue, we must recognize our country’s enduring legacy of racial discrimination—as well as Roosevelt’s troubling views on race. We must also acknowledge the Museum’s own imperfect history. Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue.
We hope this exhibition, together with other efforts to address cultural representation at the Museum, will inspire such discussion.
In 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio established a commission to evaluate a number of controversial monuments around the city, including the Roosevelt statue, which sits on city-owned land. The City determined that the Roosevelt statue would remain in place but that more information should be provided.
This project seeks to provide visitors with greater context for the statue by presenting the intention of the original planning commission as well as the intentions of the architect who designed the memorial and the sculptor who created the statue; the ways in which the statue is interpreted today; and multiple perspectives on how the statue might be addressed in the future.