The American Museum of Natural History has promised to remove the Equestrian Statue of Theodore
Roosevelt because of its white supremacist composition. However, problematic features of the statue can be found
throughout the museum’s own exhibitions. This project brings the problematic practices in the depths of the museum
out in front of the monument. It turns to anthropological tone and diorama-format, used extensively in the museum,
as further critique of its practices.
The Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, American Museum of Natural Histroy, New York, NY;
erected in 1940
View through traffic
View across the street
Honoring the museums's benefactors in the
Walking up to the monument
First there is the figure of Theodore Roosevelt, New York asthmatic rich kid, turned North
Dakota cowboy, who grew up to become one of the most revered American presidents. He is a complicated
turn-of-the-century figure—conservationist, adventurer, military hawk, known both for inspiring the name Teddy
Bear and the numerous axioms, most famously for his praise of the `man who is actually in the arena, whose face
is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…”
In this monument, erected 22 years after his death, Roosevelt, sits astride the horse, sleeves rolled up to show
giant forearms, reins in hand, his other hand resting on a pistol looking the manly hero. If this were the
extent of the statue, it would probably be left alone. Another white man of historical prominence and
long-debated legacy elevated and enlarged.
However, Theodore Roosevelt is not alone. Standing alongside his horse are two figures whose heads reach his
waist. On the left is a figure understood to be Native American with a feathered headdress, braids, and a
necklace. On the right is a half-naked man, with braids and a shield on his back—the African. Both figures are
draped in almost toga-like clothing and they stare straight ahead with blank expressions. These figures do not
represent individuals, they are allegorical—standing for their respective lands. So in a word, Roosevelt is not
just leading two figures in this arrangement, he is bridging two lands: North America and Africa. They are
accessories to the Roosevelt narrative of exploration, expansion, and strength.
While it would be hard to see all this detail from the angle of the visitor—whose head barely reaches the top of
the pedestal—after spending a few minutes contemplating the close-up images, printed at the base of the statue,
the values are clear and repulsive. This is a depiction we would not make today and there are unusual points of
care and neglect at the artistic level. Care in the rendering, neglect in the narrative.
While this statue will be removed, as requested by the museum and long demanded by local activist groups, it
cannot be a solitary act. The hierarchy and attributes that render the monument unacceptable are found throughout
the present and past of the museum. If the removal does not follow with greater action and re-evaluation of all of AMNH's exhibitions, the same values, obscured by technical
language and scientific rendering, will continue to impact the museum’s visitors, without clear opening for
Flipping the Diorama
It can be challenging to see the inherent bias in the AMNH museum exhibitions. They awe us with their craft and
contents; however, they neglect to articulate time periods or question their own observations. However, littered
throughout the musuem are plaques thanking and honoring the trustees. What if we were to place them in the glass
boxes? How could we understand their "otherness"?