Why Is a Racist Roosevelt Statue Still Standing in New York City?

An equestrian bronze of former US President Theodore Roosevelt on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City is no stranger to controversy. Activists have long denounced the racist implications of its composition, which features a towering Roosevelt flanked by an unnamed African and an unnamed Native American figure in positions of servitude. Last summer, as protests for racial justice swept the nation, the museum and the city announced their joint decision to have the sculpture removed with the Roosevelt family’s support.

A year later, however, the contested monument still stands, its impending relocation stalled by a series of bureaucratic obstacles and questions over the work’s destination. A recent Gothamist report detailed the delays that have kept the sculpture on its plinth, which sits on city land and is thus subject to public hearings that began only last month.

This morning, 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.

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

The binding vote comes after two previous hearings held by Community Board 7 and the city Landmarks Preservation Commission in May and June respectively, both of which considered the heated public debate surrounding the work’s removal. Those who oppose its relocation claim that contemporary interpretations of the monument overlook sculptor James Earle Fraser’s stated intent in 1940 to present “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.”

But the clear hierarchical structure of the statue “appears to depict the superiority of the white race,” said AMNH’s Vice President of Government Affairs Dan Slippen during this morning’s meeting. Its placement at the entrance of the museum, he continued, suggests “endorsement of this content and perceived content, undermining the museum’s mission.”

In 2019, the museum added a plaque next to the monument to provide historical context. (photo by Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic)

Because the bronze is just one element a larger Roosevelt memorial housed at AMNH, encompassing the museum’s Central Park West entrance, a rotunda, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, plans for its removal have also required rethinking the overall space. Lakan Cole, an associate at Higgins Quasebarth & Partners who spoke this morning, said the monument compromises the multifaceted legacy that the memorial honors, and that its removal “would not diminish but rather strengthen the whole.”

A proposal introduced today by Rolando Kraeher of Studio Kareher Architects would replace the space around the statue with a “simple and minimal” design that involves installing a bronze ribbon in the shape of the statue’s stone pedestal on the plaza’s granite pavement — what Kraeher described as “an echo of the relocated sculpture.”

“These designs will be compatible with the plaza’s original materials of stone and bronze, but also distinguishable as a modern intervention, visually and conceptually minimalist, while conveying an openness that will allow the opportunity for individual reflection on the removal,” said Cole.

Studio Kareher Architects’s proposal for the museum’s plaza’s redesign, including a bronze ribbon in the shape of the monument’s pedestal (screenshot of NYC Public Design Commission’s public meeting on June 21)

Another challenge has been finding a new home for the disgraced monument. The location, still undetermined as of this morning’s meeting, must be “publicly accessible and [have] a relevant connection,” said Signe Nielsen, Landscape Architect member of the Public Design Commission. Several sites dedicated to Roosevelt’s life and memory fit those requirements, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park in New York and his presidential library in North Dakota. Upon removal, the work will remain crated and stored until the institution is selected, Nielsen said.

The AMNH has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

A redesign proposal approved today involves adding a bronze outline of the statue’s former pedestal outside the American Museum of Natural History.Read MoreNews, New YorkHyperallergicRead More

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