It was past midnight when a crane lowered the towering bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt, lifting her upper body from the pedestal where she has presided over the American Museum of Natural History since 1940. The rest of the sculpture, now surrounded of scaffolding, is expected to fall apart all week. Flanked by representations of a Native American and an African on foot, the shadow of the president on horseback is dwindling day by day.
A spokeswoman for the institution said the roughly $2 million removal process was carried out with historic preservation specialists and several dozen workers. It has been endorsed by several New York City agencies.
The New York City Public Design Commission voted last June to remove the statue; in November, its destination—the new Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, ND—was announced. The statue is in storage and will be shipped to the Presidential Library within a few weeks.
The removal caps a decades-long saga of protests from critics who argued the equestrian statue symbolized the painful legacy of museums supporting images of colonialism and racism in their exhibits. Militants have targeted the monument since the 1970s; in recent years they have tried to wrap the sculpture with a parachute and deface it with red paint. Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic of The New York Times, called the statue one of New York’s most contested images and landmarks.
“Now is the time to move it,” museum president Ellen V. Futter said in an interview with The New York Times when she announced the sculpture’s impending removal in 2020.
The statue, designed by American sculptor James Earle Fraser in 1939, was one of four memorials that a city commission reconsidered in 2017, ultimately deciding in a split decision to leave it in place and add context. His 2019 exhibit, “Addressing the Statue,” discussed the figures walking beside Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s complex legacy, which included overt racism in his later years.
But efforts to contextualize the statue mattered little to those who view it as a barometer of the heated national debate over who is honored in bronze and marble. Protesters from all political backgrounds have used the Roosevelt Monument as a backdrop for their opinions on the subject. And national efforts to dismantle statues of Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee have widened to include figures like Christopher Columbus and Winston Churchill.
The most recent example of a monument being removed in New York was that of another former president: In November, the City Council moved a statue of Thomas Jefferson from its chambers to the New York Historical Society after lawmakers opposed the president’s legacy as a slaveholder. .
Anne Canty, spokeswoman for the natural history museum, said the square in front of its entrance will be restored – a project that will continue until spring. At this point, a plaque will mark the continuing site of the New York State Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, which still includes the rotunda and Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall in the museum.