Teddy Roosevelt and the American Museum of Natural History

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JAC: People keep thinking that I’m the author of everything on this site. While that’s usually true, we also have occasional contributions from others, most often from Greg Mayer, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. And this comes from him.

by Greg Mayer

Readers of WEIT may recall that last Monday Jerry noted that, according to the NY Times, President Ellen Futter of the American Museum of Natural History has decided that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that stands in front of the Museum’s entrance on Central Park West will be removed. I’ve (almost) given up on the University of Wisconsin, but some institutions are still worth fighting for. It took me a few days to compose a letter, and below is what I sent her on Friday.

Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, American Museum of natural History, 14 June 2019.

Ms. Ellen Futter, President
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024
Dear President Futter:
I am writing to you to express my dismay at your decision to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt from in front of the the Rotunda entrance of the Museum.
I hope I need not have to recount for you Roosevelt’s close association with the Museum during his lifetime, and his many contributions to natural history as a naturalist, collector, conservationist, and scientist. The State of New York chose the Museum as the location for its memorial to Roosevelt in all his fields of endeavor– politician, public servant, soldier, statesman, author– not just in natural history.
As a conservationist, his historical importance is unparalleled, because, as Governor and President, he was able to act on his principles. He expressed these principles succinctly in a letter to Frank Chapman, one of the Museum’s curators, while he was Governor:
The destruction of the wild pigeon and the Carolina paraquet has meant a loss as severe as if the Catskills or Palisades were taken away. When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished[.]
As a scientist, Roosevelt is one the very few presidents who, as a much published student of the natural world, can be counted among the company of scientists. During a recent visit to the Museum to do research, I had the pleasure of examining in the Bird Library a copy of Roosevelt’s paper on animal coloration, published in the Museum’s Bulletin in 1911, one of the only scientific papers published by a president.
The statue itself presents Roosevelt in Western frontier garb, while at his side are a figure of an American Indian and an African. The American West and Africa were extremely important in Roosevelt’s development and career as a naturalist, and he wrote much of his experiences in both places. The figures represent not conquered peoples, but the people and places with whom, and where, Roosevelt lived and worked during his years in the West and during his year-long African expedition. The entrance outside of which the statue stands leads, appropriately, into the Akeley Hall of African Mammals– a hall which had been planned to be called the “Roosevelt African Hall”.

Your effort to cast the removal of the statue not as a repudiation of Roosevelt, but as a critique of the statue’s “composition”, is a transparent stratagem, and is even more disreputable, making the statue’s removal an aesthetic whim, rather than an ideological act. Realistic depiction of allegorical figures in a pyramidal shape may not be the fashion today, but it is the essence of a museum to conserve, display, and interpret natural and cultural artifacts from all of time and history, not to get rid of those that go out of style.

Those calling for the statue’s removal may be well-intentioned (though ill-informed– those who defaced the statue a few years ago thought the figure to Roosevelt’s left was an African-American). But good intentions and justified grievances are not enough to excuse the act of iconoclasm  that you are contemplating. The English Reformation may have had some good points in its critique of the Catholic Church, but that did not justify the destruction of the monasteries and the loss of their libraries– a severe loss, just as Roosevelt himself wrote to Chapman.
To remove the statue is to condescend to the misdirected passions of the crowd, no matter how just the essence of their grievances. I urge you resolutely to reconsider your decision.
With all best wishes,
Gregory C. Mayer
Professor of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Parkside

A couple of notes on items in the letter; some of these points are not explicated in the letter, because I assume Futter would know them. First, the entrance to the Museum here leads into the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, which is a large space containing an Allosaurus attacking a Barosaurus, as well as various memorials to Roosevelt. The floor below the Rotunda houses the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, also with memorials to Roosevelt, including a bronze sculpture of Roosevelt sitting on a bench (alongside which many pictures have been taken). This whole section of the Museum, together with the plaza, facade, and statues, constitute The New York State Theodore Roosevelt Memorial. Second, Roosevelt’s letter to Frank M. Chapman may be found here. Third, the earlier misinformed protests alluded to are the subject of this NY Times article. And finally, if you want to know more about Roosevelt as a naturalist and his connection to the Museum, Darrin Lunde’s The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History  (Crown Publishing, 2016) is a good place to start.

Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, American Museum of natural History, 14 June 2019.

I grew up on Long Island, both sides of my family are from Brooklyn, and my father worked in the City. As a budding naturalist, though my attention focused on the Bronx Zoo, the American Museum did not escape my notice as a source of wonder, amazement, and knowledge. Until I went to grad school at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the American Museum was “my” museum. I visited, and continue to visit, the American Museum to examine specimens for my research. In fact, for the last few years, I’ve been visiting the American Museum almost every year (because of the extraordinary richness of their collections for a project I’ve been working on).

Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, American Museum of natural History, 14 June 2019.

The first thing I did as I contemplated my response was to check what info I immediately had to hand about the Museum and Roosevelt. I was surprised to find I had more than a dozen books about the Museum, its collections, and its history. The earliest I purchased in 1975, during a high school field trip; the latest I bought during a research visit last year. I doubt I’ll get a reply; the only time I’ve gotten a reply to such a letter to a higher up was a letter to Harvard, and they knew I was an alum. My hope is that if enough criticism is voiced, there might be a reconsideration.

Theodore Roosevelt equestrian statue, Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, American Museum of natural History, 14 June 2019.

The defenestration of statues is reaching absurdist territory, with two recent take downs in Madison. Protesters pulled down the statue “Forward” outside the State Capitol. The statue is described by the Wisconsin Historical Society like this:

“Forward” is an allegory of devotion and progress, qualities [sculptress Jean Pond] Miner felt Wisconsin embodied.

The statue has often featured, as a positive symbol, embraced by protesters, in demonstrations in protests for women’s rights, gay rights, labor,  etc. The current protesters are either abysmally ignorant, or actually oppose progress.

Forward in better days. Amber Arnold, Wisconsin State Journal Archives.

 

Forward, as recently defaced. She was subsequently pulled down and thrown in the street. Amber Arnold, Wisconsin State Journal.

Even more bizarre is the destruction of the statue of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist and Union officer who was killed by Confederates while leading his troops at the Battle of Chickamauga. Heg was originally from Norway, and the Norwegian media have taken note of the statue’s destruction. This excerpt, from a Norwegian piece entitled “Historians Puzzled After Statue Razed” sums it up:

Norwegian officials were surprised and saddened by news that the statue of a Norwegian-American anti-slavery activist is among the latest to be toppled and dumped in a river by demonstrators in the US state of Wisconsin. Hans Christian Heg opposed slavery and fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. . . .

Colonel Hans Christian Heg became a symbol of Norwegians’ anti-slavery activism. He was shot and killed during the Civil War while leading a Union regiment against the South’s Confederates, so Norwegians can’t understand why his statue became a target of anti-racism demonstrators.

It’s not just Norwegians that can’t understand. As a local reporter put it, the statues’ destruction left “many people wondering what purpose their removal served to advance the Black Lives Matter movement.”

The tearing down of statues has now become indiscriminate. In Madison (again), students at the university are now calling for the removal of a statue of Lincoln. (Everybody hates Lincoln, apparently.) In San Francisco, a statue of Ulysses Grant was actually taken down! Do the demonstrators know nothing at all about American history?

That the latter is actually the case is suggested by a remark made to NBC News by a demonstrator at an attack on a statue of Andrew Jackson, to the effect he was getting rid of “Confederates”. This is absurd. Jackson was a staunch Unionist. During the nullification crisis of the 1830s, Jackson firmly opposed nullification and secession, and, at his behest, Congress passed a bill authorizing him to take military action against South Carolina. According to Britannica,

Jackson’s actions in asking for the Force Bill were seen by nationalists as a heroic move that preserved the integrity of the Union and underscored the primacy of the federal government.

Jackson was a Southerner and slave-owner, but we don’t know what he would have done thirty years later, because he was long dead by the time of the Civil War. (You should read, by the way, Jackson’s proclamation on nullification, simply as an example of argumentation. I’m not sure if he wrote it himself, but it’s a rhetorical tour de force compared to what emanates from the current president.)

One of my greatest concerns is that these events are providing the perfect ammunition for Trump’s re-election campaign. You may think that tearing down Lincoln, Grant, and Civil War heroes is the action of a few zealots, and I hope that’s true. But four years ago I thought the follies of the academic authoritarian left were an academic sideshow, but it turned out Fox News was broadcasting these follies 24/7. The events in Madison have not gotten much coverage from other national media, but Fox is already making hay of these events; (video here; more coverage).

In seeing what is going on, I thought, “This is like the Cultural Revolution”; Andrew Sullivan had similar thoughts. If Lincoln, Grant, and Heg cannot pass muster, then no one can.

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