People are calling for museums to be abolished. Can whitewashed American history be rewritten?

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Written by Brian Boucher, CNN

After years of resisting calls for its removal, New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has asked the city to dislodge from its front steps an equestrian monument to Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth US president, which depicts him charging forward, and towering over two mostly nude figures, one Black and one Indigenous.

In a statement dated June 2020 sent to museum staff, posted on the museum’s website, Ellen Futter, president of the institution’s board, said, “As we strive to advance our institution’s, our City’s, and our country’s passionate quest for racial justice, we believe that removing the statue will be a symbol of progress and of our commitment to build and sustain an inclusive and equitable Museum community and broader society.” (After the announcement President Donald Trump tweeted, “Ridiculous, don’t do it!”)

Might this concession be a harbinger of other changes ahead for American museums? How can institutions whose leadership is often overwhelmingly White rethink their staffing, collections and exhibitions, much less move toward more truly equitable governance? Or, some ask, should museums continue to exist in anything like their current form?

The controversial statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt outside of the Museum of Natural History, featuring a Black man and a Indigenous man at his sides Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/Getty Images

The Natural History Museum’s statement places the monument’s removal in the context of “the ever-widening movement for racial justice that has emerged after the killing of George Floyd,” a Black man who was killed by four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of whom knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. After a video of Floyd’s killing went viral, tens of thousands took to the streets in protest in the US and around the world, even in the midst of a pandemic, to demand accountability for police brutality and to call for the defunding, or even the abolition of local police forces, among other demands.

The presence of an Indigenous figure in the Roosevelt monument, and the museum itself, have a very personal meaning for Wendy Red Star, an artist and member of the Crow tribe. She created a project, “The 1880 Crow Peace Delegation,” about a group of Crow chiefs who traveled to Washington, DC, that year to try to negotiate a peace treaty. In researching for the project, she found that the remains of one of those chiefs, Pretty Eagle, had been stolen from a burial site and later sold to the AMNH. The tribe was able to repatriate the remains in the 1990s.

“It wasn’t until I did this project that I learned about that,” Red Star said in a phone interview. “The Roosevelt monument was the first thing I thought of. To me, it’s a really direct connection to how my people have been presented at the museum — along with the dinosaur bones as part of the natural world. It’s always been such a surreal experience to see my community’s objects on display and watch people observing them as if these were peoples of the past.”

Just as government, law enforcement, and all forms of authority are being questioned in this moment of upheaval, museums worldwide have come in for intense scrutiny, and the situation on the ground is changing very fast. Earlier this month, dozens of current and former staffers of multiple cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art as well as institutions nationwide, published an open letter accusing the institutions of unfair treatment of employees of color and saying that “your covert and overt white supremacy that has benefited the institution, through the unrecognized dedication and hard labor of Black/Brown employees, with the expectation that we remain complacent with the status quo, is over.”
Apsáalooke Feminist #4, 2016, by Wendy Red Star

Apsáalooke Feminist #4, 2016, by Wendy Red Star Credit: Courtesy Wendy Red Star

Within days, staffers at the Guggenheim and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art openly accused the institutions’ leadership of racism. In an emailed statement to CNN, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, said the institution was prepared to address these concerns:

“As a society, we are confronting sustained injustices never resolved, and feel today the pain and anger of previous moments of turmoil. The Guggenheim addresses the shared need of great reform, and long overdue equality, and want to reaffirm that we are dedicated to doing our part.

“In this period of self-reflection and reckoning, we will engage in dialogue with our staff and review all processes and procedures to lead to positive change,” he continued. “We are expediting our ongoing … efforts to produce an action plan for demonstrable progress.”

The Metropolitan Museum declined to comment. The Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art did not respond to requests for comment.

Museums have also been critiqued for issuing anodyne statements that failed to mention Floyd or the Black Lives Matter movement. The Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, posted an unspecific call for “equity and fairness” on Instagram, and later apologized; the director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art privately apologized to Black artist Glenn Ligon for using a work of his from the museum’s holdings on social media without his permission, according to the New York Times.
Decolonize This Place protesting outside the American Museum of Natural History

Decolonize This Place protesting outside the American Museum of Natural History Credit: Andres Rodriguez/Decolonize This Place

The AMNH’s statement does not mention the groups that have for several years organized protests calling for the Roosevelt monument’s removal. In a phone interview, Decolonize This Place (DTP) organizer Amin Husain pointed out that removal of the monument was just one of three demands that Decolonize had placed on the museum, which include internally renaming Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day and rethinking the museum’s displays.

“Many of the museum’s galleries contain Indigenous remains and objects,” he said. “Those things need to be sent back to the people they were taken from, and the exhibitions must be completely overhauled in consultation with, and with the active participation of, the relevant stakeholders.”

While many U.S. museums have made moves toward what the field calls “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” fellow DTP organizer Marz Saffore called for much greater change. “It’s critical that we move past identity politics,” she said. “It’s not enough to hire an Indigenous curator. It’s not enough to have one Black person on your board. Museums as we know them have to be abolished. I don’t want my voice to be added to museums that are often trophy cases for Imperialism.”

Institutions like the AMNH will continue to be sites for debate, some of which may echo heated arguments among historians and activists on how to handle monuments to objectionable historical figures. This includes leaders of the Confederate Army in the US Civilw War, which were erected by Confederate sympathizers oftentimes decades after the war, with a conscious white supremacist purpose.

Some ask whether these monuments could, rather than being destroyed or removed, be altered by, for example, adding contextualizing information. In an interview with National Public Radio on Tuesday about the Roosevelt monument, historian Manisha Sinha suggested that this tribute to Roosevelt’s efforts toward nature conservation could still stand, if the subjugated Black and Indigenous figures were simply removed. (DTP pointed out in an emailed statement that the land Roosevelt “conserved” was stolen from Indigenous people, so they would hardly find that an acceptable solution.)

By contrast, Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, former public affairs czar for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and author of books including “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion” (2014), wrote an editorial this month for the New York Daily News saying that while he had earlier asked whether Confederate monuments could be altered, he’d concluded that they must be removed. “I was not only wrong,” he wrote; “I was insensitive.”

Michael Diaz-Griffith, executive director of the Sir John Soane's Museum Foundation, has written a pamphlet on how to be an anti-racist preservationist

Michael Diaz-Griffith, executive director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, has written a pamphlet on how to be an anti-racist preservationist Credit: Michael Diaz Griffith

Michael Diaz-Griffith, executive director of the New York-based Sir John Soane’s Museum Foundation, which supports the Soane Museum in London, is author of “The Anti-Racist Preservationist’s Guide to Confederate Monuments: Their Past and a Future Without Them,” a pamphlet that succinctly explains how such monuments have a foundation in white supremacy, and outlines why they should be struck from the public realm. “In the case of the Confederates there’s no public legacy to detach from their wrongdoing,” Diaz-Griffith said over the phone.”The Confederacy was an immoral enterprise.”

Diaz-Griffith envisions a future, sooner or later, free of tributes to any such contentious figures.

“I think that all named buildings, all named places, will end up being reevaluated,” he said. “Who should they be named after? Do we continue to focus on those who were recognized in their own times, or do we shift our attention to those who fought for justice but weren’t publicly honored when they were alive? Since all people are fallible, it may be a good idea to erect monuments to principles, like justice, rather than to individuals.”

US museums, dependent as they are on the largesse of wealthy individuals and families, are far from a future in which controversial donors, who, for instance, hold views that run counter to science, nonetheless have galleries or other features named for them. The AMNH itself was under scrutiny for taking money from Rebekah Mercer, a major donor to the Republican party, whose leader Donald Trump has repeatedly denied the existence of climate change during his time in office. Mercer left the board when her term ended in 2019. Meanwhile in 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art named the revamped plaza on Fifth Avenue for donor David H. Koch, likewise a Republican donor, who is notable for funding efforts to undercut climate change science.

But the activists who had called for the removal of the Roosevelt monument have more foundational questions in mind than who funds such cultural organizations. Representing the group NYC Stands with Standing Rock, Sandy Grande, using the Lenape people’s name for Manhattan, said in a phone interview, “We should underscore that the city (Mannahatta) wouldn’t exist without the land and labor of Black and Indigenous peoples. This is Lenape land and the Mohawk and Seneca peoples built much of the city. In addition to Black people’s labor, their settlement at Seneca Village was destroyed.”

“So,” she said, “the removal of the monument has been a long time coming, not just for the museum but for the city itself, and we will continue to press for change.”

Makeba Clay, the Phillips Collection's first cheif diversity officer

Makeba Clay, the Phillips Collection’s first cheif diversity officer Credit: Rhiannon Newman/Courtesy Makeba Clay

“This is an historic moment — a pause and reflect moment for individuals and institutions,” said Makeba Clay, the chief diversity officer at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, over email. “The systemic and unrelenting injustices against members of the Black community have existed for hundreds of years and continue to exist all around us, including in our museums. We know we have work to do and that means being actively anti-racist — not passively non-racist.”

Clay was the inaugural appointee to her role, which she took on in 2018 and her message is that it’s not enough to “amplify” voices and messages, art institutions must take action. “We are looking at our staff and board, both overwhelmingly white, and actively examining our hiring and recruitment processes to promote greater diversity,” she said. “We recently held a town hall, which uncovered stark differences between staff of color and white staff.”

Clay also said that art does not exist outside struggle. That while it can be used for “constructive discourse, building empathy and creating community,” art also “can confront current issues and topics that aren’t neutral.”

Adding: “What appears like radical action is exactly what museums need to pursue to prove that they have a valuable role to play in this national discourse.”

Top image: Fall, from the series Four Seasons, 2006, by Wendy Red Star.



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