By Carol Tannenhauser
It was hard to imagine the American Museum of Natural History without the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on his horse standing sentry at the Central Park West and West 80th Street museum entrance. After all, Roosevelt had been there for over 80 years.
“It’s rough,” a longtime AMNH security guard told the Rag the other day, as he patrolled the plaza where the statue had stood. “It’s like they took away a piece of the museum.” He misses it, he said, and so do a lot of other people.
But a lot of other people don’t miss it at all. You may remember that the statue didn’t leave voluntarily — it was run out of town by forces set in motion by the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020, and the widespread recognition that followed of the structural racism that subtly and not-so-subtly shapes, influences, and controls the lives of African Americans.
In June, 2020, The Washington Post wrote: “The museum’s leadership said in a statement that it was ‘profoundly moved’ by the national reckoning over racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody and has ‘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 problem with the statue was not Theodore Roosevelt himself, although it was later revealed that he had some racist beliefs about Blacks and Native Americans and an affinity for eugenics. It wasn’t just the presence of an African man and a Native American walking on either side of the horse that caused concern, though they were half naked. It was the arrangement of these figures — the “composition” of the sculpture — with Teddy towering above the others. The triangle was unmistakable, with Teddy at the apex.
The museum asked the city, on whose land it sat, for permission to remove the statue. The city agreed, drawing on a 2018 mayoral panel, which stated, “Height is power in public art, and Roosevelt’s stature on his noble steed visibly expresses dominance and superiority over the Native American and African figures.” The family of Theodore Roosevelt agreed, though his great-great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt V, suggested it should not just be hidden away in a warehouse. “Rather than burying a troubling work of art, we ought to learn from it,” he said. “It is fitting that the statue is being relocated to a place where its composition can be recontextualized to facilitate difficult, complex, and inclusive discussions.”
That “place” is Medora, North Dakota, population 129, where the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library is being built, with an expected opening date of July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of America’s founding. After the statue’s disassembled elements were removed by crane on a balmy January night in 2022, they were shipped to Medora, where they remain today.
The agreement with the city allowed the TR Library “to relocate the statue for storage while considering a display that would enable it to serve as an important tool to study the nation’s past.” The library said that “it will establish an advisory council composed of historians, scholars, artists and representatives from the Indigenous, Tribal and Black communities to guide the recontextualization of the statue.”
WSR reached out to a representative of the library and was told only that “the statue is in a safe and secure location in North Dakota”…and that, “at this time, there are no plans yet developed for displaying the statue. Happy to keep you posted in the future.”
To receive WSR’s free email newsletter, click here.