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Theodore Roosevelt Statue Removal Begins at Museum of Natural History

The equestrian monument to Roosevelt, which has stirred protests as a symbol of colonialism and racism, is leaving its plinth, in pieces.

by Zachary Small for The New York Times January 19, 2022

It was past midnight when a crane descended on the imposing bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt, lifting his upper body from the pedestal where it has presided at the American Museum of Natural History since 1940. The remainder of the sculpture, now surrounded by scaffolding, is scheduled to leave in pieces through the week. Flanked by representations of a Native American man and an African man on foot, the shadow of the president on horseback is diminishing by the day.

A crane lifts part of the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History. The rest of the statue, seen by some as a symbol of colonialism and racism, will be removed during the week. Credit: Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

A spokeswoman for the institution said that the approximately $2 million removal process was conducted with historic preservation specialists and several dozen workers. It was approved by multiple New York City agencies.

The New York City Public Design Commission voted last June to remove the statue; in November, its destination — the new Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, N.D. — was announced. The statue is moving to storage and will be shipped to the presidential library within a few weeks.

The unveiling of the statue, in 1940, at the New York State Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History. Credit: The New York Times

The removal caps a decades-long saga of protests by critics who argued that the equestrian statue symbolized the painful legacy of museums upholding images of colonialism and racism in their exhibitions. Activists have targeted the monument since the 1970s; in recent years, they have tried shrouding the sculpture with a parachute and defacing it with red paint. Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic for The New York Times, characterized the statue as one of the most contested images, and monuments, in New York City.

“The time has come to move it,” the museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, said in an interview with The New York Times when she announced the sculpture’s impending removal in 2020.

The statue, designed by the American sculptor James Earle Fraser in 1939, was one of four memorials that a city commission had reconsidered in 2017, ultimately deciding in a split decision to leave it in place and add context. Its 2019 exhibition, “Addressing the Statue,” discussed the figures walking beside Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s complex legacy, which included overt racism in his later years.

The unveiling of the statue made news in 1940. Credit: The New York Times

But efforts to contextualize the statue mattered little to those who view it as a barometer of the heated national debate over who gets honored in bronze and marble. Protesters across the political spectrum have used the Roosevelt monument as a backdrop for their opinions on the topic. And national efforts to dismantle statues for Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee have widened to include figures like Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill.

The most recent example of a monument removed in New York was that of another former president: In November, the City Council relocated a statue of Thomas Jefferson from its chambers to the New-York Historical Society after legislators objected to the president’s legacy as an enslaver.

Anne Canty, a spokeswoman for the natural history museum, said that the plaza in front of its entrance will be restored — a project that will continue through the spring. At that point a plaque will mark the continuing site of the New York State Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, which still includes the Rotunda and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall in the museum.

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