NYC agency approves removal of racist Theodore Roosevelt statue at AMNH

June 23, 2021

Renderings courtesy of NYC Parks/ AMNH

The New York City Public Design Commission on Monday approved plans to remove and relocate the Theodore Roosevelt statue from the steps of the American Museum of Natural History, about a year after officials called for the controversial sculpture to be taken down. The city’s Parks Department and AMNH presented their proposal last week to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, but the agency was unable to reach a decision. On Monday, The PDC voted unanimously to remove and relocate the statue to a relevant cultural institution.

A year after Theodore Roosevelt’s death, the New York State Legislature in 1920 established the Roosevelt Memorial Commission with the goal of expressing the former president’s “life as a nature lover, naturalist, explorer and author of works of natural history,” according to the museum.

Designed by James Earle Fraser, the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned in 1925 and unveiled on the city-owned steps of the museum in 1940. It features Roosevelt on horseback flanked by a Native American figure and an African figure, both located physically lower than the president. For decades, activists have opposed the hierarchical composition of the statue and have called it racist.

In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio convened the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers after a white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia over the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.

The panel ultimately concluded the statue of Roosevelt did not have to be removed or relocated but required additional context. AMNH in 2019 opened the “Addressing the Statue” exhibition to explore the history of the statue and examine the racial hierarchy depicted.

Calls for the removal of the statue were revived following the murder of George Floyd last summer, with racism and racist symbols becoming part of the national discourse again.

Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced support for the statue’s removal last summer. “The statue has representations that clearly do not represent today’s values,” the mayor said at the time. “The statue clearly presents a white man as superior to people of color and that’s just not acceptable in this day and age and should never have been acceptable.”

The design from NYC Parks and AMNH calls for the removal of the plinth and replacing it with an extended stair and terrace. It includes an outlined image in bronze of the statue’s base inlaid into the terrace with two plaques explaining the statue and its removal. Under the proposal, the statue would be relocated to an institution dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt.

During last week’s meeting, LPC Commissioners were split on the design, with some believing the pedestal, which was designed by John Russell Pope, should remain. Others had an issue with the city’s thought that replacing the statue with a new sculpture would make visitors focus more on the removal than the new piece. LPC Commissioner Michael Goldblum called the design idea a “cop-out.”

“We live today in a world where we are rethinking the things,” he said. “Then rethink it.” Goldblum cited the Kehinde Wiley statue in Times Square that was created in response to controversial Confederate monuments as an example of this.

The city has not announced which cultural institution they plan to lend the statue, but Signe Nielsen, president of PDC, said during a public meeting on Monday the site should have a “relevant connection” and be “publicly accessible.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this post was published on June 15, 2021, and has been updated to include the Public Design Commission’s decision.


Images courtesy of  AMNH/ NYC Parks 

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