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Controversial Theodore Roosevelt statue in NYC will move to North Dakota for 'contextualized' display

An equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt that has been displayed outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has been criticized as a racist symbol. Under an agreement, the statue will move to Medora, North Dakota, where it will be displayed with guidance from American Indians, African Americans, historians, scholars and artists as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.

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The statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback alongside an American Indian and African American has drawn controversy as a symbol of colonialism and will be removed from display in front of New York's American Museum of Natural History. edwardhblake via Wikimedia Commons
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MEDORA, N.D. — The statue of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse and towering over an American Indian and African American that has drawn criticism in New York City will move to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation and city of New York on Friday, Nov. 19, announced they have entered into a long-term loan agreement that will provide for a reconsideration of the statue designed by James Earle Fraser.

The statue, commissioned by trustees of the New York State Roosevelt Memorial in 1929, has stood on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City since 1940.

In the aftermath of George Floyd ’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer last year, the statue sparked controversy, with critics saying Roosevelt’s elevated position over the American Indian and African American in the statue was inappropriate. Many statues honoring Civil War confederate officers have been taken down and denounced as symbols of racism.

“We are grateful to the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library for proposing a fitting new home for the equestrian statue,” said Vicki Been, New York City’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “This long-term loan would allow an important part of the city’s art collection to be appropriately contextualized, and we look forward to continuing to work with the library on next steps.”

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The statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History in New York, June 19, 2020. The equestrian memorial to Roosevelt, which has long prompted objections as a symbol of colonialism and racism, will be coming down. Caitlin Ochs / © 2020 The New York Times

Plans call for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, which has a budget of at least $100 million and will be built with private donations, to open in 2026.

Board members of the presidential library believe the equestrian statue of Roosevelt is “problematic in its composition,” the library said in a statement announcing the loan. “Moreover, its current location denies passersby consent and context.”

Under the agreement, the statue will be stored while plans are developed for a “display that would enable it to serve as an important tool to study the nation’s past.”

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The presidential library, with support from members of the Roosevelt family, will establish an advisory council composed of Indigenous and Black communities, historians, scholars and artists to “guide the recontextualization of the statue,” the announcement said.
“Museums are supposed to do hard things,” said Ed O’Keefe, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation. “It is said that ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ and our job is to forthrightly examine history to understand the present and make a better future.”

Theodore Roosevelt V, who lives in Brooklyn and is active in climate investing, said the statue is “problematic in its hierarchical depiction of its subjects and should be removed from New York State’s official memorial to Theodore Roosevelt.”

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But, he added: “Rather than burying a troubling work of art, we ought to learn from it. 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.”

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The statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback alongside an American Indian and African American has drawn controversy as a symbol of colonialism and will be removed from display in front of New York's American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of Equestrian Statues

The statue will be on loan to the presidential library, which will be responsible for its upkeep. The relocation, including any plans to display the statue, is subject to final approval by New York City’s Public Design Commission.

Details about the relocation will be worked out in the coming months.

“The American Museum of Natural History has a historic and continuing relationship with the Roosevelt family and is proud to be the site of the New York State memorial to Theodore Roosevelt,” said Ellen Futter, the museum’s president. “We anticipate that work to remove the equestrian statue, which will take several months, will begin in the coming months.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s father was a founder of the American Museum of Natural History, and bird and other wildlife specimens collected by Roosevelt are in its collections.

Roosevelt first visited the Little Missouri Badlands in 1883 to hunt buffalo. He returned the next year after the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day to ranch in the Badlands near Medora.

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Oslo-based architecture firm Snøhetta sees the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library as a simple complement to the rugged North Dakota Badlands. Rendering provided by Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation

The Lakota Sioux and other tribes in the area had been forced onto reservations only a few years earlier. Sitting Bull and his followers, for example, surrendered at Fort Buford near Williston in 1881.

Roosevelt held harsh views of American Indians, common among whites on the frontier, and made derogatory comments about natives during his ranching days.

As president, Roosevelt invited six American Indian chiefs to march in his inaugural parade in 1905, including American Horse, an Oglala Lakota.

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A porch area of Snøhetta's design looks over the colorful North Dakota Badlands. Rendering provided by Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation

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