Theodore Roosevelt statue removed from NYC's Museum of Natural History: Was this right?

Todd Maisel

Fact Box

  • On January 18, 2022 New York’s American Museum of Natural History initiated the removal process of their entrance statue of President Teddy Roosevelt on horseback flanked by a Native American and African figure. 
  • The museum requested its removal in 2020 because of “its depiction of subjugation and racial inferiority” after demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd. Before the decision, the museum opened an exhibit in 2019 to display the statue’s history and contemporary reactions. 
  • In 1940, James Earle Fraser, the sculptor of the statue, said, “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” 
  • Theodore Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, and known for his roles in conservationism, labor management, and foreign policy. 
  • Robin Williams played the figure of Teddy Roosevelt come to life in the adventure film series Night At the Museum from 2006-2014.

Andrew (Yes)

In a statement addressing the statue's removal, Mayor Bill de Blasio summarized the American Museum of Natural History's reasoning; '[the statue] explicitly depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior.' The statue presents Roosevelt proudly riding while a Native American and an African American walk with downcast eyes in an apparent attempt to show superiority. That type of thinking is outdated and not tolerated in modern society, a sentiment confirmed by Theodore Roosevelt IV; 'The World does not need statues…that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice.' 

Museums are places for discovery, nuanced thought, and detailed exploration of ideas. Those opposing the removal of this statue will claim another victim of the 'woke mob' or political correctness gone amok. But if one really examines the iconography of the statue, the racist and colonial overtones become clear. This type of reflection and in-depth analysis is exactly the type of work these institutions should take on. Further, this is not simply a knee-jerk reaction to racial unrest; it was carefully a considered move and purposely overturned an earlier decision with the backing of the City. 

Institutions such as The American Museum of Natural History take bold and decisive actions that have major impacts on the nation. This decision says that experts, with a major vested interest in preserving history, have decided this statue is too offensive and must be removed. Imagine what a great conversation starter this could be for visiting school trips. Actions such as these can actively improve race relations, and the American Museum of Natural History is right to take them.

Curtice (No)

It was only a matter of time before the cancel culture came for Theodore Roosevelt. Due to protests against 'colonialism,' the statue of Roosevelt that had stood outside the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan was recently removed. The irony of a statue of a historical figure being removed from outside a history museum was certainly lost on those whom demanded its removal.

This is yet another victory for cancel culture, where anything deemed 'offensive' must be removed from sight, lest their 21st-century sensibilities are disturbed. If we are going to continue to use today's standards to judge every historical figure, how will future generations view today's most vocal adherents to today's cancel culture? Not kindly, we can surmise.

Writer and philosopher George Santayana said, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Today's 'woke' mobs are woefully ignorant of history, especially in context. The United States does have a history, a strong one at that, and it's okay to display it—warts, and all. One of the things that have always made the US stand out among nearly all other nations is the freedom and liberty to express oneself, even if that expression differs from others.

Has the US always been flawless? Has it always been perfect? Certainly not. Yet, it would be wise for those advocating the removal of historical statues and monuments they deem offensive to take Santayana's warning to heart. While they are at it, they might want to read George Orwell's 1984. They might find some resemblance between Orwell's depiction of Big Brother's totalitarian regime and those leading today's cancel culture charge, 'memory holing' away history that must be forgotten. As it is written, 'Whoever controls the past controls the future. Whoever controls the present controls the past.'

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