That infamous statue has been a source of shame to the city and an insult to Black and Native New Yorkers since its installation in 1940 — so after decades of controversy, it was both a surprise and a relief on Sunday when the museum president, Ellen V. Futter, responded to pressure from museum staff and generations of decolonial activists by announcing that it is finally going to be removed.
It’s no accident that Roosevelt is depicted on horseback with an indigenous man and a Black man standing behind him. Today, the statue is a blunt reminder that the founding of this country 400 years ago is the intertwined story of African slavery and the dispossession and genocide of Native America. In 1940, its arrangement was a direct expression of a popular but vigorously contested ideology of racial hierarchy based in false environmental reasoning — an ideology of white supremacy and a politics of eugenics actively embraced by the museum under the long presidency of Henry Fairfield Osborn in the first half of the century.
Perhaps now, as museums like AMNH put to rest the tired disclaimer that such objects are merely expressions of the ideas of an earlier era, they can take the opportunity to confront their complex inheritances and rethink their role in the contemporary world.