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A museum curator's job isn't easy

The Smithsonian Institution has a lot of junk in its attic. 

Over 134 million items gather dust in the Smithsonian's warehouses spread throughout suburban Virginia. 

Admittedly, about 70 million of those items are insect samples kept in drawers. 

But the other 64 million items in the collection include spaceships, tanks, ships, cars and other bulky items not easily filed away. 

It is the job of museum curators to decide which tiny fraction of the items in the collection will go on display in the 19 museums lining the Mall in Washington D. C.

Last week, our group of history teachers from Northwestern Minnesota heard several of those curators describe their job. 

The curator's basic problem: How do you pull together pieces of junk in a way that tells a story easily understood by the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists from around the world who pour through the museums each day?

Once you've decided which junk to display, how do you explain it? 

You'd think the curator's job would be boring and uncontroversial, but when you dabble in history, you often step on toes. 

In the mid-1990s the Smithsonian put the Enola Gay, the aircraft, which dropped the first nuclear bomb on Japan, on display. 

As a part of the display, curators included pictures, which showed the human toll of the bomb on the ground. As you can imagine, those pictures were gruesome. 

Veterans' groups protested, saying that the pictures didn't tell the entire story, particularly the story of the millions of lives saved by dropping the bomb that awed the Japanese into immediate surrender. 

Emphasizing the human cost of the bombs made those who dropped them look like criminals, some claimed.

So, the curators took the gory pictures down -- only to have Japanese-American groups protest that showing the Enola Gay without mentioning the human devastation it caused sanitized the horrible event. 

Eventually, the Smithsonian just hung the Enola Gay from the ceiling with almost no commentary as to why it was even there. 

Curators tiptoe through a minefield when they pull junk from the attic and put it on display. 

Every decision curators make is colored by human bias, just as the decision to include certain facts and exclude others from history textbooks is subject to politics.

Texas history textbook standards, for example, now make no mention of the civil rights movement. Segregation didn't happen, to hear the Texans tell it. Martin Luther King wasn't even necessary.

The apparent rule in Texas: If we ain't proud of it, we ain't gonna bring it up. 

The Smithsonian and most museums have higher standards of truth. 

For example, the curators at Monticello now include the children Thomas Jefferson fathered by his slave Sally Hemmings in their presentations. 

They didn't always. Yet the information is important. 

Yes, Jefferson hoped for an end to slavery, but not for reasons of human dignity and freedom for enslaved people. 

No, Jefferson wrote that slavery brought the races into too much contact. Slavery should be ended so blacks could be sent back to Africa where their genetics wouldn't co-mingle with the Anglo-Saxon races!

Jefferson wasn't always consistent, and that is part of the story. 

Curators must present the truth or history degenerates into propaganda and fantasy, which many people actually prefer. 

So it is no surprise that curators of the Smithsonian's collection don't please everyone, even me. 

Included in a beautiful exhibition of 1940s paintings in the Museum of American Art were several paintings by George Ault showing scenes from a farmyard. 

"Haunting and eerie," is the description offered by the curator on the placard. Ault, through his paintings of dark, empty farm scenes, depicted the dark psychological landscape of the home front during World War II, the curator wrote. 

The wires running from the barn to the house "run like the scrape of a cat's claw" across the tormented scene. 

I couldn't have disagreed more. 

To me, the lone yard light hanging on the granary, the long shadows cast long around the yard, the heavy wires swooping from the granary to the house, the red paint with white trim, the slightly sagging rooflines, the utterly dark sky -- the whole scene was warm and homey.

To one raised in such a scene, the absolute peace of a quiet farmyard wasn't eerie at all. It made me want to go home and sink back into it. 

I suspect those of us comforted by the sight of a lone yard light in a quiet farmyard are now a tiny minority in this country. 

The curator got it wrong, but it won't do any good to call our senator over it.