Last year’s Anti-Columbus Day tour (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
While Mayor Bill de Blasio marches in today’s Columbus Day parade, a group of activists will lead the third annual Anti-Columbus Day Tour through the American Museum of Natural History.
The activities will begin at 3 p.m., and a flyer from the group Decolonize This Place promises “more than a tour this year.” Last year, hundreds of people packed the museum’s halls for the event.
Back in January, the commission created by Mayor de Blasio to reevaluate controversial monuments across the city decided that the statute of Christopher Columbus in the circle that bears his name will stay where it is, but that “new historical markers” will be added to it, presumably to note the explorer’s ties to the slave trade and his remarkable cruelty. The administration also promised to erect “a new monument, at a location in the city not yet determined, recognizing Indigenous peoples.”
The commission also ruled that the statue of Theodore Roosevelt next to the American Museum of Natural History, which depicts the former president on horseback flanked by an indigenous man and an African-American man, should stay where it is, and that the administration would “partner with the museum to provide additional context on-site through signage and educational programming, which can offer multiple interpretations of the sculpture,” and “explore” the possibility of erecting a new statue nearby to “further these dialogues.”
Roughly half of the mayor’s monuments commission felt that more research needed to be done on the statue, which was erected in 1939, while the other half felt it should be relocated.
“An observation repeated several times by the Commission is that height is power in public art, and Roosevelt’s stature on his noble steed visibly expresses dominance and superiority over the Native American and African figures,” the report states. “Some also see the monument as an image of racial hierarchy and linked this to the museum’s early-twentieth-century ties to the eugenics movement; the second and third International Eugenics Congress conferences were held at AMNH in 1921 and 1932, respectively.”
Last year, a few weeks after Columbus Day, activists doused the Roosevelt statue with red paint.
New York City has the largest population of indigenous people in the country, with more than 111,000 Native Americans living in the five boroughs. Yet “in every representation of non-European peoples in the museum, there is a reinforced message of being placed in the past, and being contiguous with the earliest humans,” said Jackson Polys, a Tlingit artist who is part of today’s actions.
“A part of the problem with that institution as a whole, is that it’s contained by these reinforced messages of manifest destiny that permeate the museum,” Polys says, noting the Roosevelt statue in particular. “People consider Roosevelt as being progressive for his advocacy of land conservation, but the issue with that conservation is that it first removed the native people from that land.”
This past weekend, the AMNH posted an Instagram video showing captions being added to a diorama from 1939, depicting the Dutch meeting with the Lenape, to correct “cliches and a fictional view of the past.”
Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU who is part of Decolonize This Place, called this a “baby step” in the right direction, while the museum renovates the 120-year-old Northwest Coast Hall.
“Instead of re-conceiving the dioramas, what they’re doing is adding plaques pointing out how the dioramas are fundamentally flawed, and if you do that was a whole, visitors are going to be very confused.”
A spokesperson from AMNH did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
“Ultimately, you have to ask, why are these cultural halls in a Museum of Natural History in the first place? There are no European or settler halls there,” Ross says. “Those tend to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art across the park. Somehow the objects of these indigenous populations are of ethnographic interest, and are aside displays of animals and mammals…It reflects a Victorian conception of racial science, that these populations are very close to nature and haven’t ascended to the rank of civilization.”
According to the release, today’s events “will be fully participatory,” and will culminate with a People’s Assembly at 5 p.m. around the great canoe.