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New York City's natural history museum has removed a Theodore Roosevelt statue

Scaffolding and tarp surround the remnants of the equestrian statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Wednesday.
Mary Altaffer
Scaffolding and tarp surround the remnants of the equestrian statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Wednesday.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City quietly began removing a controversial statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt on Tuesday night in the final chapter of a saga that has stretched for nearly a year and a half. By Thursday, only scaffolding and tarp remained.

"The relocation of the Equestrian Statue from the front steps of the American Museum of Natural History began Tuesday," a museum spokesperson told NPR over email. "The process, conducted with historic preservation specialists and approved by multiple New York City agencies, will include restoration of the plaza in front of the Museum, which will continue through the spring."

The spokesperson added that such work is required to be conducted during nighttime hours for safety reasons and to minimize disruption to traffic and pedestrians. The statue will be stored in New York and prepared for long-haul shipping, and it is expected to be transported to North Dakota in the next few weeks (more on that below).

The bronze statue — officially named "Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt"— has towered outside the museum's entrance for some 80 years and became a source of local and national debate in recent years. It depicts the former New York governor and 26th U.S. president sitting on a horse, flanked by two shirtless, unnamed men. One is Native American and the other is of African descent.

The statue was commissioned in 1925 to stand on the museum's steps, since Roosevelt's father was one of its founders and Roosevelt himself was a "devoted naturalist and author of works on natural history," as the museum's website explains.

But it adds that the design itself "communicates a racial hierarchy that the Museum and members of the public have long found disturbing." Roosevelt's legacy — especially his views on race and support for the eugenics movement — has also come under wider scrutiny in recent years.

In 2017, a commission established by then-New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio evaluated the statue and several other controversial monuments on city-owned land. Members were divided on their recommendations, with half advocating for more research, half in favor of relocating the statue and several recommending that the museum keep the statue in place but add signage with more information and context. The city went with the third option.

While the museum went on to open an exhibit about the statue's history and contemporary reactions to it in 2019, the nationwide reckoning with racial injustice following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd made "abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient," as officials put it in June of that year.

The protests brought renewed scrutiny to monuments depicting Confederate generals and other symbols of white supremacy across the country, many of which have since been removed.

The museum said in a statement that it had asked the city, which owns the statue, to remove it from their property.

De Blasio was quick to convey the city's support, telling NPR at the time that it was "the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue." (Notably, then-President Donald Trump publicly disagreed.)

Theodore Roosevelt IV, a museum trustee and great-grandson to the former president, also gave his blessing. Noting its long association with the Roosevelt family, the museum said at the time that it would remain the site of the state's memorial to the former president, and it would name its Hall of Biodiversity after him in honor of his conservation work.

A year later, in June 2021, the New York City Public Design Commission unanimously approved the relocation of the statue, saying it would finalize details in the coming months. In November, the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation announced an agreement with the city for the "long-term loan and reconsideration" of the statue at its new presidential library, which is set to open in Medora, N.D., in 2026.

"The board of the TR Library believes the Equestrian Statue is problematic in its composition. Moreover, its current location denies passersby consent and context," it said in a statement. "The agreement with the City allows the TR Library to relocate the statue for storage while considering a display that would enable it to serve as an important tool to study the nation's past."

The library said that, with the support of Roosevelt family members, it will establish an advisory council composed of historians, scholars, artists and representatives from the Indigenous, Tribal and Black communities "to guide the recontextualization of the statue."

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.