Dead Philanthropists / by Akira Ohiso


The American Museum of Natural History has always been one of my favorite museums. I remember taking the Long Island Railroad into Penn Station with my parents. We walked through the station corridor towards 8th and into the warm sooty subway, hopping the C train to 81st Street.

I begged my parents to buy me a hot pretzel with mustard from one of the street vendors. Then I would sit on the stone steps staring at Teddy Roosevelt on his horse.

We often visited Sagamore Hill, Teddy Roosevelt’s summer home in Oyster Bay, NY. The furnished rooms were time capsules into the way life was at the turn of the 20th century. It was a rugged American narrative that I was taught and believed in, unaware of the privilege and continuing fortification of white supremacy that undermined my mixed-race heritage.

When my relatives visited from Japan, we took them to Sagamore Hill to experience something “American,” at least in my father’s eyes who did whatever he could to assimilate when he immigrated to the United States in the early sixties.

America’s two atomic bombs knocked some good ole’ moral sense into those Japs.

The dioramas of animals in their natural habitats continues to fascinate me as an adult, especially in an age where museums are increasingly using digital technologies to create exhibits.

They are so a part of my kids everyday lives that they found the analog dioramas to be the most engaging exhibits.

Kids run from one diorama to the next trying to be the first to get to the next animal scene; an octopus being devoured by a whale, a bear hunting for fish, a sea otter rolling playfully in seaweed. Is being first nurture or nature?


We walked through the Hayden Planetarium, but the exhibits were dated. Moore’s Law assures that contemporary exhibits always need to be on trend. Maybe Bloomberg, Trump or the Sacher Family will sponsor a wing? The experience of a dinosaur walking across a flat screen is commonplace and finite. The dusty dioramas are timeless.

Growing up on my street in the seventies, teenagers with leather fringed clothing would often go to the planetarium for the Floyd laser shows. I would hear them talking about it when we played Running Bases; manhole cover eavesdropping. I knew there was something rebellious about it.

I worked briefly at the museum in the Events & Conference Services department where I was privy to wealthy New Yorkers and Fortune 500 companies renting wings of the museum for weddings, award ceremonies and galas.

The names of dead philanthropists are as prominent as the exhibits.