Workers dismantle a huge Lenin's monument in city of Zaporizhia, Ukraine on March 17, 2016. 
It took two days and a giant crane, but Ukraine on March 17 finally managed to lift its biggest remaining statue of Soviet founder Lenin off its pedestal and consign it to the dustbins of history. The 20-meter-tall (65-foot-tall) bronze and granite monument fell victim to a Ukrainian ban on Soviet symbols that was imposed in May 2015 as part of the Russian neighbour's drive toward closer relations with the European Union.  / AFP / PRYLEPA LEKSANDER        (Photo credit should read PRYLEPA LEKSANDER/AFP via Getty Images)
Why do we care about statues?
03:10 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Hugh Raffles is Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research and Director of the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography and Social Thought. The author of “Insectopedia,” he has a new book which will be published by Pantheon Books on August 25: “The Book Of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

New Yorkers who walked past the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on Central Park West in recent weeks will have seen officers from the New York Police Department Counterterrorism Unit standing guard in front of the iconic equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, his horse flanked by two muscular, semi-naked men, one African, one American Indian.

Hugh Raffles

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.

While Futter’s decision chimes with the efforts of cultural institutions across the nation to respond to – or inoculate themselves from – the demands of the movement for racial justice roiling the country and the world, it should also be seen in the context of ongoing campaigns for museums to break from their colonial tradition and newly imagine how they present their collections and engage their publics.

The recent debate in France over the repatriation of looted colonial artifacts is one example of this movement. Here in New York City, AMNH has worked with Native consultants to revisit some of its displays, including the Roosevelt statue which was recently the subject of a thoughtfully critical exhibit.

The statue in New York of former President Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, with a Native American and a Black man standing alongside, will be removed, the city has announced.

This effort was visible in the interpretive labels added to the “Old New York” diorama that has occupied a wall beside the museum’s first floor subway entrance, also since 1939. This landmarked diorama shows Peter Stuyvesant receiving tribute from a line of Lenape men near the New Amsterdam docks in 1660.

There was distress, dispossession and war throughout the Dutch colony that year but, until the renovation, few museum visitors were likely to have seen past the upright yet submissive Lenape men in their loin cloths and feathers, the laboring Lenape women bare-breasted in the background, the Indian wampum, tobacco, clubs and canoes lopsidedly ranged against the fully dressed Dutch with their guns, brick buildings, ships and orderly commerce.

The diorama now includes a statement from Molly Miller (or Wasalaangweew) of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation of Wisconsin: “The early years of colonization caused much intergenerational trauma and the hiding of our culture. We now celebrate over 40 years of cultural reawakening and the 13th year of Lenape-Munsee language revitalization.” And as I stood there last fall, a teacher from a New York City public middle school read aloud to her attentive group a label in which the museum acknowledges its location on Lenape lands and describes its determination to assess its colonial history and “add a diversity of voices and perspectives to the Museum’s displays.”

At which point, one of the students observing the diorama asked the inescapable question: “So why don’t they just take it down?”

Museums now have the chance to face their history and refuse the temptation to excuse outdated displays and collections of dubious provenance as the products of an earlier era. I’ve heard such excuses repeatedly during my research on the tragic history of the indigenous Greenlanders brought to AMNH along with three giant meteorites by the polar explorer Robert Peary in 1897.

Yet, even back then The New York Times and other newspapers included voices dismayed by the treatment of these Inughuit people, voices that museum administrators and scientists largely ignored. Many of the cultural halls at AMNH are the legacy of Franz Boas, the founder of professional American anthropology. Outspoken against racism and anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe, Boas allied with W.E.B. DuBois’s NAACP and published groundbreaking studies of New York City immigrants that debunked ideas of fixed racial traits.

But Boas – along with other anthropologists and archaeologists of this period – was deeply preoccupied by the fear that Native people, their cultures, and their languages, were disappearing in the US and around the world under the onrush of modernity (and wanted to preserve as much as they could of that heritage) and set himself the task of salvaging this vanishing world, as he saw it.

As a result, the anthropologist Lee D. Baker has shown, progressive white social scientists came to value above all a narrow and exclusionary conception of what a “real Indian” could be.

The limits of their conception are visible not only in the Northwest Coast Hall that Boas oversaw and which the museum is currently renovating, but in the outdated encyclopedic vision of static cultural difference on display throughout the cultural exhibits. Still, as that middle school student seemed to be saying: the way we tell history determines our present. With their outsize role in the public education of our city, museums have an outsize responsibility for their cultural narratives, especially when these narratives reinforce assumptions of white centrality.

We should celebrate when racist statues fall and we should encourage New York City’s museums to seize this moment to move beyond their declarations of support for racial justice. Those statements are hollow unless matched with a proactive response to calls for new visions of what a 21st century museum can be.

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    The dialogue on the role of museums and who they are designed to serve has already raised far-reaching issues. From within and outside museums, campaigners have called for divestment from the military and police, as well as from climate-damaging industries, and for the removal of compromised board members and trustees.

    Activists have proposed the formation of commissions to oversee the repatriation of, or restitution for, objects and skeletal remains obtained under often murky conditions from Native people in the US and in colonial expeditions overseas .

    They are pressing for the genuine diversification of curatorial, administrative and other staff, and for the development of inclusive and collaborative models of archaeological, cultural and scientific research and training. And, not least, they want to participate in the reimagining of displays and outreach through collective conversations that allow for the decentering of inherited Eurocentric narratives.

    Museums are among our great institutions of public learning: the city and state have an obligation to support their renewal – both financially and politically. To remain relevant, museum leadership has an equal responsibility to accept the challenge of this unprecedented moment of democratic and cultural opportunity.