The meaning of a monument

16 minutes

The Sutton Hoo helmet

19 minutes

Gut hack

12 minutes

Sabine Hossenfelder: searching for beauty in mathematics

9 minutes

A small antelope horn

2 minutes

The American Museum of Natural History grapples with its most controversial piece

The ‘Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt’ was commissioned by the City of New York to stand in front of the American Museum of Natural History in 1925, and was finally unveiled to the public in 1940. A co-founder of the museum and avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation was reflected in many of his policies as president, including the vast expansion of national parks, forests and monuments. But despite his contributions to the field of natural history, the statue – depicting a horseback Roosevelt flanked by a Native American figure and an African figure – has been controversial for decades, with detractors arguing that it’s a monument to white supremacy. Further complicating its symbolism are Roosevelt’s recorded views on race, which were in some ways progressive for a white man of his time, but would today be condemned as unequivocally racist.

Released by the American Museum of Natural History in 2019 – prior to the institution’s decision to remove the statue in the wake of the George Floyd protests in June 2020 – this short film was created to help contextualise the work for museum visitors. Leading scholars in the fields of art, history and African and Native American studies weigh in on the sculpture’s intended and perceived meanings – alongside museum visitors, many of whom are relaying their first impressions of the monument. The resulting short is captivating both as a history and as a reading of the wider cultural moment, in which institutions are being forced to grapple with their legacies, and governments are reassessing who and what should be celebrated in public spaces.

The meanings and mysteries of the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet brought vividly to life

The early Anglo-Saxon artefact known as the Sutton Hoo helmet has, since its origins in the 7th century, passed through many incarnations, including: exquisite armour, long-dormant burial object, astounding archeological discovery and high-stakes puzzle. Today, the Sutton Hoo helmet – so named for the site in the English county of Suffolk at which it was discovered in 1939 – lives on as one of the British Museum’s most famous pieces. In this video, Sue Brunning, curator of the museum’s European Early Medieval Insular Collection, examines the iconic object, revealing the multitude of meanings and mysteries it holds. Through her investigation, Brunning brilliantly captures how history is an ever-fluid work in progress, being made and remade as new discoveries are brought – often quite literally – to light.

Video by the British Museum

When medicine offers no relief, a biohacker begins a radical self-experiment

In 2015, the US scientist, artist and self-described ‘biohacker’ Josiah Zayner undertook a controversial project to help resolve his lifelong gastrointestinal issues. The plan was to replace the vast colonies of microbiota on and inside his body via transplants from a healthy donor – and then document the proceedings. Although an accomplished biologist with a PhD in biophysics and two years as a NASA researcher under his belt, Zayner’s endeavour was frowned upon by much of the scientific community, with critics condemning the project for operating outside the normal boundaries of bioethics. Especially controversial was Zayner’s plan to self-administer a faecal transplant – a risky procedure usually reserved for potentially fatal conditions. In their documentary Gut Hack, the filmmakers Mario Furloni and Kate McLean follow Zayner’s fascinating, radical and not-for-the-squeamish quest for relief. In so doing, they also confront deeper issues of ethics and autonomy at the core of contemporary science.

Directors: Mario Furloni, Kate McLean

Producer: Laura Heberton

Against ‘beauty’ in science – how striving for elegance stifles progress

That there is an inherent ‘beauty’ and ‘elegance’ to the laws of nature is a view that permeates the field of physics. But, according to the German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, the notion that the further you peer into reality, the easier the equation gets, has no basis in reality. Indeed, since the mid-20th-century, the maths of physics has become increasingly knotty, even as many physicists have continued to search for a path back to simplicity. In this interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the PBS series Closer to Truth, Hossenfelder makes the case that this fixation on beauty isn’t just misguided – it’s stifling scientific progress.

Video by Closer to Truth

Sitting by the fire with a nomadic tribe, a physicist ponders the many shapes of wisdom

The Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli is a pioneer in the field of quantum gravity, and often thought of as one of the world’s foremost scientific thinkers. In this brief animation by James Siewert, which features narration from the Swazi-English actor Richard E Grant, Rovelli recalls communing with members of the Hadza tribe of northern Tanzania – one of the last hunter-gatherer societies on Earth. Sitting by the fire, thoughts of the peculiar trajectory of Homo sapiens and the many shapes of human wisdom flicker in his head, as he ponders the gaps, large and small, between his world and theirs.

Video by rubberband.

Animator: James Siewert

Website: Alexander

The American Museum of Natural History grapples with its most controversial piece

The ‘Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt’ was commissioned by the City of New York to stand in front of the American Museum of Natural History in 1925, and was finally unveiled to the public in 1940. A co-founder of the museum and avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation was reflected in many of his policies as president, including the vast expansion of national parks, forests and monuments. But despite his contributions to the field of natural history, the statue – depicting a horseback Roosevelt flanked by a Native American figure and an African figure – has been controversial for decades, with detractors arguing that it’s a monument to white supremacy. Further complicating its symbolism are Roosevelt’s recorded views on race, which were in some ways progressive for a white man of his time, but would today be condemned as unequivocally racist.

Released by the American Museum of Natural History in 2019 – prior to the institution’s decision to remove the statue in the wake of the George Floyd protests in June 2020 – this short film was created to help contextualise the work for museum visitors. Leading scholars in the fields of art, history and African and Native American studies weigh in on the sculpture’s intended and perceived meanings – alongside museum visitors, many of whom are relaying their first impressions of the monument. The resulting short is captivating both as a history and as a reading of the wider cultural moment, in which institutions are being forced to grapple with their legacies, and governments are reassessing who and what should be celebrated in public spaces.

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter

Hexensabbat in Trier (‘witches’ sabbath’, 1593), by Pastor H H Lauen, Germany. Courtesy the Witchcraft Collection, Cornell University.

Essay/
History
Rich witches

How a flawed logic of economic scarcity and social climbing spurred witch hunts in early modern Germany

Johannes Dillinger

Bessie. Holstein cow, aged 20, from the Allowed to Grow Old project and book by the photographer Isa Leshko. All photos © Isa Leshko

Essay/
Ethics
Philosophers and other animals

Christine Korsgaard argues that we can extend a Kantian moral framework to include other animals. But her argument fails

Peter Godfrey-Smith