The American Museum of Natural History is removing the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that guards its entrance, and it’s way past time. The bronze monument shows Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by an African on one side and an indigenous American on the other; they’re on foot.
The removal is political, to be sure, but it’s personal too.
I grew up outside New York City, and visited the museum often, with school and with family; I later lived a few blocks away as an adult, and later, I made sure to bring my children to the museum when we visited New York. By the way, I also visited TR’s home at Sagamore Hill, a national historic site, more than a few times.
I don’t think I noticed anything odd about the Roosevelt statue as a child–I was more interested in the dinosaur bones inside. As a grown-up, however, I started to wonder how long New Yorkers would tolerate the monument, which exudes a celebration of racism and imperialism. Second thoughts and debate about the siting of the statue go back at least a couple of decades.
AMNH doesn’t view its exhibitions as sacrosanct, and reconfigures displays to reflect contemporary science and current aims. [Note: Commemoration of the past is always about the future.] The big draw for me as a kid wasn’t the Roosevelt statue anyway, it was the gargantuan “brontosaurus” in the entry hall, an exhibit mounted in 1905.
Except it wasn’t a brontosaurus, but a composite of four distinct sets of fossilized remains, plus a head reconstructed from a different sort of dinosaur. In the 1990s, after nearly a century on display, the AMNH reconfigured and relabeled its signature exhibition, considering new information, better paleontology, and its longterm mission of promoting science. The improved exhibit displays an apatosaurus, with a few more vertabrae, and a longer tail that didn’t drag in the sand. Alas, it wasn’t the dinosaur of my childhood memories.
It was more important to get it right than to defer to a tradition that was wrong.
Certainly, Theodore Roosevelt, who was–among many other things–a scientist–would agree.
Roosevelt’s contributions certainly merit commemoration at the AMNH. His father was an initial supporter of the museum, whose charter was signed in his home. Roosevelt himself was a published naturalist, the architect of the national park system, and a committed conservationist. A great-grandson now serves as a museum trustee.
It’s important to remember all of TR’s contributions: as president, he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House, a occasion that sparked controversy in an America racially segregated by law, but he was also a racist, imperialist, and a supporter of eugenics. He was a strong supporter of scholarship, sports, and war; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for helping to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japan War. A sickly child, he leaned into physical vigor and became a promoter of what would now be termed “toxic masculinity.” He once delivered a speech of more than a hour just after being shot in the chest. He supported public housing, regulation of business, and sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”
It’s all worth remembering. It’s not all worth celebrating.