In the New York Times today: the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, the former president of the United States who declared the end of the Philippine-American War in 1902, will be removed from the steps of the Museum of Natural History. The Museum maintains that it is removing the statue not because of Theodore Roosevelt’s racism and participation in colonial wars but because of the composition of the statue that visually places the representation of indigenous Americans and African-Americans people below his image. The museum even pointed out that “it is not reflective of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy.”
This monument has been the subject of intense debate in recent years, with progressive opinion divided between removing the statue and keeping it for what I thought were valid reasons. The exhibit in the gallery behind the lobby of the museum was among the first I attended when I arrived in the United States and I was struck by the intensity of curators and scholars in debating the power of these statues and symbols in public life. Though Teddy Roosevelt was the commander-in-chief of the colonizing army in the Philippines, I did not notice any opinion from any Philippine Studies scholars in the exhibition. With no voice to directly identify with, I went with one that said to keep the statue in place but enacting a program that will preserve the dialogue on the representations within the monument.
Due to recent events, I have gradually changed my opinion to removing these statues from public view but preserving them as artifacts. It’s on the steps of the museum anyway, so why not push it back a little and place it inside? Though the declaration of independence happened several decades ago, the period of American colonization of the Philippines has not quite ended and is still part of the daily politics of my country. It’s in stark contrast to many decolonizing movements that it was “granted” by a rising superpower rather than by a declining empire.
An event that might be seen as part of a distant past is really a part of the immediate present whether on US soil or in the former colony. The argument that we cannot view certain events through 2020 lenses does not apply here. On top of this, the monument was only put up in 1940, and many Filipinos and Americans who lived through that time are still alive today.
During several waves of the French Revolution, the republican government felt responsible to preserve monuments to former kings for their historical, aesthetic, and cultural value. One way the republican government succeeded in their paradoxical mission of preserving and destroying symbols of the Old Regime was through the development of museums.
In other news, portraits of former Speakers of the House who had ties to the Confederacy during the civil war were removed from the galleries in the US Capitol.
While these recent gestures of iconoclasm might be read now was “breaking news,” connoting a controversial newsworthy moment as a reaction to protest actions, I am rather curious to see that they happened through the volition of institutions and without the usual bloodshed and attacks on real people rather than images that succeeded the destruction of monuments elsewhere; by the Daesh in Syria for instance. In this case, the killings arguably happened before the removal of the monuments and not on people who have a direct cultural interest in preserving them.
I won’t be surprised if the removal of Roosevelt’s statue will soon be directed towards other features and artifacts of the museum. I found the mural inside the lobby to be more racist, depicting the evolution of empires and civilizations as if one would do a genealogy of birthrights that concludes with the glorious representation of the United States of America, the wigged founding fathers, and Teddy Roosevelt, again on a safari looking down at lions.
David Freedberg in the Power of Images had noted in the last parts of his book how the people who went out and joined the EDSA People Power revolution in 1986 and attacked portraits of former president Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda. I do not know of any other instance when the Filipino people maligned or destroyed images en masse. I hold the view that we have a national culture that has been conditioned to venerate religious representations even of Satan. I foresee that this wave of iconoclasm will soon reach the Philippines with the anger and frustration of the people directed towards symbols of the present autocratic regime. I wonder what they might be since Duterte’s face is ugly and damaged as it is.