GUEST COMMENTARY: The Man on a Horse

The Roosevelt Memorial Sculpture outside the American Museum of Natural History. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/MacLachlan

The American Museum of Natural History has requested that the City of New York remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from its front stoop. At a time when mobs in the street have vandalized public monuments across the nation, the museum and the city are engaging in their own act of civic vandalism.

The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial wing of the American Museum of Natural History was dedicated in 1936. Murals depicting scenes from TR’s life grace the walls inside the hall. TR’s widow unveiled the 16-foot tall bronze equestrian statue on October 27, 1940, what would have been his 82nd birthday. The sculptor was James Earle Fraser, noted for “End of the Trail” and the Buffalo nickel, two iconic works depicting Native Americans, and statuary adorning the National Archives, the Supreme Court, and the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

Once a heroic civic monument, this sculpture has been under attack for several years. The underlying problem is that the past does not conform to the values of the present. The past can only remind us of who we were and who we are, with all the celebration and criticism such reminders merit. Removing monuments deemed offensive whitewashes our heritage and fosters historical illiteracy.

In 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio formed an Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers to assess public monuments as to whether they aligned with “New York values” and to recommend the removal of “symbols of hate.” In reality, the commission had four monuments in its sights: Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle; Dr. J. Marion Sims, installed along the wall of Central Park across from the New York Academy of Medicine; the plaque honoring Marshall Phillippe Petain on lower Broadway; and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.

The commission decided. The Sims statue was removed and banished to Green Wood Cemetery, where he is buried. A pioneering gynecologist, his sin was operating on enslaved women in South Carolina without using anesthesia. Petain’s plaque would remain, as it was part of a larger work commemorating every tickertape parade up the Canyon of Heroes (his was in 1931). A gift from Italian-Americans proud to call the city home, the Christopher Columbus statue could not be so easily dismissed as contrary to “New York values.”  The commission punted on Roosevelt, but now it is the 26th President’s turn.

Fraser shows Teddy Roosevelt astride a horse, thereby inviting derision as another “great white man on a horse.” But TR was a great man. He was a great American, and a great New Yorker. He lived a life in the arena, and he did ride horses – out west as a young man, with the Rough Riders in Cuba, and at his home in Oyster Bay on Long Island. Flanking him on either side are a Native American and an African. They are walking, and a bit behind(otherwise they would have bumped into his stirrups).

Some see that as a demeaning posture, and therefore the monument is surely racist. And imperialist. And hurtful. And finally, embarrassing.

By removing TR, the institution is also seeking to distance itself from its own past. For much of its existence, the Museum of Natural History treated other cultures – African and Native American cultures, in particular – as belonging to the natural world, not the civilized world, the world of the arts and high culture housed across the park in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That curatorial stance has evolved, but to have statuary at its entrance reminding all of the Museum’s former view of the human family? That is embarrassing.

I interpret the statue differently. That in itself is heresy, for it is becoming impossible to acknowledge there could be more than one way of interpreting a work of public art. I do wonder why the claims of those who find this statue – or any public monument – “hurtful” should take precedence over my view that the work is inspiring and instills feelings of pride and patriotism.

Roosevelt rides proudly and confidently, staring resolutely ahead. That is an honest portrayal. He was nothing if not proud, confident, and resolute. Quite as much as the sculptural grouping, that visage is what makes people uncomfortable today. We no longer possess that pride and confidence. Removing this monument celebrates the inverse – our fears, our doubts, our shame.

The two figures accompanying him also fix their gaze ahead. They do not look down; they are not bound; their posture is not subservient. They are clearly free men. They willingly join the man on the horse and he welcomes them on his journey. He will not leave them behind.

The man on horseback is advancing … where? His destination is not a place. Perhaps he is leading them to their common future. Not dragging, leading. The grouping suggests that Africans and Native Americans were not yet part of his world, but also suggests that they are not to be excluded from it. The monument presents a moment in the journey. The American West and Africa were quite different in 1900 than they are in 2020. When they arrive, will the two men embrace what they encounter? Will they assimilate, or will they reject what they find and return to their own culture? TR clearly believes that they will continue with him, because he has no doubts regarding American civilization. But that is for them to decide. Read in such a way, the grouping is hopeful and optimistic, inclusive and proud.

At this juncture we might ponder the historical Roosevelt, as opposed to the allegorical Roosevelt – his rejection of “hyphenated Americanism,” and his dinner with Booker T. Washington in the White House; his obsessive big game hunting, and his creation of the national parks; his glorious military service, and the loss of his son in the First World War; his “Big Stick” foreign policy, and his Nobel Peace Prize; his public service as a member of the state assembly, police commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor, President, and finally his ego-fueled Bull Moose campaign in 1912.

Theodore Roosevelt was a man of achievement and character, a man with flaws and contradictions. Eliminating this equestrian statue erases the man’s complexity in favor of a bland, inoffensive, monochromatic nonentity, from which we will learn nothing, and about which we will have nothing to say.

By: Jeffrey Kroessler (Jeffrey Kroessler is a librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.)

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Daily News.



2 thoughts on “GUEST COMMENTARY: The Man on a Horse

  1. Mr.Kroessler shows insight and perspective which is often lacking in the public discussion of these issues. He articulates the feelings which have left me very distressed at the inability of city and state leaders who have little constructive to say in response to those who destroy without questioning their impulses. Thank you for providing this carefully reasoned opinion. Paul Ward.

  2. It’s funny when you think about this.
    There is something quite absurd here.
    How about the horse?
    We are not seeing the position
    that he is in.
    After all is said and done he
    Is the one with the shortest end of the stick here
    as part of this group.
    Has anybody come forth and mentioned this
    or has recommended that this monument
    should be removed not only on account
    of the African and American Indian but on the
    situation the poor horse.
    And yet the artist does have the dignity
    to present the horse with his head also
    held up high which also includes the horse
    In Theodore’s vision of the frontier and the future.
    Let’s leave the monument alone in all its wonder and beauty.
    Thank you Mr. Kroessler
    Anthony Macagnone

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