Sunday, December 1, 2019

Addressing the Statue

I have written before about the extremes of political correctness.  Today some of the old movies are not shown for fear of offending someone and the new Disney Plus channel is using a warning about “outdated cultural depictions”.  in 2017 the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, established a commission to evaluate a number of public statues on city land to decide if they should be removed. 

One institution in New York, however, has addressed the subject head-on and that is The Museum of Natural History.  Why?  Because they have a monument to Theodore, “Teddy”, Roosevelt (1858-1919) at the center of the steps to the museum’s main entrance. It has become the site of protest demonstrations. I would venture that more people have looked at the statue since the hullabaloo began than in the many years before.

The mayor’s commission decided that this sculpture could stay in place, but more information should be supplied. To its credit the museum faced this issue straight away.

The  monument  was meant to celebrate Theodore Roosevelt not as President but as a conservationist and author of works on natural history.  The Roosevelt family were major supporters of the Museum and Teddy’s father was one of the its founders. 

In 1883 Teddy Roosevelt headed west to achieve a boyhood dream of frontier life.  He figured he was going on a hunting trip but, once there, he bought a cattle ranch in the Badlands of what is now western North Dakota.  He realized the plight of the bison and other animals. It is estimated that some 30 million bison populated the North American prairie before European settlers came but, through sport, and desire for hides, when Roosevelt arrived, there were only about 1,000 left.

Roosevelt in the Badlands

Today we discuss the widening extent of the powers of the President and it is said that Roosevelt is considered the first modern president because, during his term (1901-1909), he began that expansion.  He wished to improve conditions for workers and implement better health and safety laws at the same time as reigning in the power of big business.  How successful he was can only be judged relatively to his time.  More pertinent to the Museum of Natural History he is also known as the “Conservation President” as he set aside more than 230 million acres of land as national parks, forests and other protected sites.

To deal with the controversy around the Roosevelt Memorial the Museum has mounted what is definitely a reading show with all points of view expressed in quotes accompanied by photos of the speakers. One defender of the monument, Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Rice University, is quoted as saying “Theodore Roosevelt was the explorer-naturalist par excellence. All the things that the Museum’s trying to do with science education—he was the leader in this. T.R. was a promoter of scientific experts, particularly naturalists, so it makes sense for him to be honored at the Museum.”

Harriet F. Senie, Director, Art Museum Studies, City College of New York, speaks to critics’ misinterpretation of figures that the designer of the over-all monument, John Russell Pope, termed “heroic”, and were traditional allegories “representing Africa and America, emphasized by the animals in the parapet reliefs.”

There are several quotes from Andrew Ross, Director of American Studies Program at New York University, who represents the anti-sculpture faction and, at least in this show, is Roosevelt’s severest critic.  He writes, “I don’t think any educator in New York City would describe Roosevelt as a racial unifier. In fact quite the opposite.  And the portrayal of the superiority of his figure on horseback [with] half-naked African and Native American [men] carrying his rifles on foot is a very stark illustration not of racial unity but of racial hierarchy.”

It is true that Roosevelt held some views we, or at least most of us, no longer share. He believed that the “English-speaking race” was superior to others”.  Does anything ever change!

in the exhibition it is pointed out that this was not what sculptor, James Earle Fraser, who completed the sculpture in 1939, intended to illustrate. He said of it in 1940, “The two figures at [Roosevelt’s] side are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” 

Ross goes on, “I would remove it from public view.  I don’t think it deserves to occupy that prominent position any longer and certainly not in front of [this] museum.”  Frankly I find this a bit scary.  This is a teacher of our young folk who wishes to deny or erase history.  As I pointed out at the beginning Theodore Roosevelt is in many ways a model for our children.  Today we are concerned about climate change and our public lands.  No one is perfect and we have every right to decry defects in our leaders.  In fact, that is exactly what is going on right now in our country. 

The show ends with what to me is the most telling quotation, particularly today.  “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President… is not only unpatriotic and servile but is morally treasonable to the American public.  Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else.  But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant of unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.” Theodore Roosevelt, editorial in The Kansas City Star, May 7, 1918.  

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