145 Artists and Academics Are Petitioning to Halt the Transfer of the Museum of Natural History’s Theodore Roosevelt Statue

The signatories oppose the statue's proposed move to ancestral tribal lands in North Dakota.

A statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York after it was splashed with red paint on October 26, 2017. A similar incident took place on October 6, 2021. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images.

More than 140 artists and academics have issued an open letter calling for New York to reconsider its plan for the controversial statue of Theodore Roosevelt that loomed over the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) for generations.

The bronze statue, which depicts the former president atop a horse, with a Native American and Black man below, was removed via crane last month and put into storage. It’s still there today, awaiting transfer to its next home: the forthcoming Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora, N.D., on a long-term loan.

But petitioners argue that city officials “made a mistake” when they approved the library as the statue’s destination, as reported by Hyperallergic

“Its transfer to that location only compounds the harms stemming from the statue’s racist message,” their letter, released this week, reads. “New Yorkers cannot simply dump their toxic cultural products in other communities. The city should reject the transfer of its undesirable waste elsewhere.”

The letter also argues that the city should have consulted with the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) people, whose ancestral land, seized in the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, will serve as the site of the library. “We believe that the decision to send the monument to a site that is so culturally important to the MHA Nation is either an act of breathtaking insensitivity or of metropolitan arrogance,” the petitioners write. 

The sentiment echoes that of numerous tribal leaders. “If the state of North Dakota or the [library] asked for our endorsement directly…my answer would be ‘Hell no,’” the chairman of the MHA Nation, Mark Fox, told Native News Online last year. “I think it’s ignorant and inappropriate,” he added.

Among the initial signatories on the petition are artists Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Michael Rakowitz, and Dread Scott, alongside critics Nicole Fleetwood, Hal Foster, Lucy Lippard, and Fred Moten.

The city first considered moving the statue in 2017, when then-mayor Bill de Blasio convened an advisory committee to review it and other monuments in Manhattan. The Mayoral Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers—as the group was called—ultimately chose to keep the Roosevelt statue in place, opting instead to add a plaque for additional historical context.

But the object remained a source of debate, most notably during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, as monuments to Confederate generals, colonial leaders, and other contentious figures were toppled across the country. 

The AMNH announced in June of that year that it would remove the Roosevelt sculpture. “It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue,” Mayor de Blasio said at the time.

Interestingly, five original members of the Mayoral Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers co-authored the open letter published this week: Teresita Fernández, Pepón Osorio, Audra Simpson, John Kuo Wei Tchen, and Mabel Wilson.

Representatives from the American Museum of Natural History did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.