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Hidden Museum Treasures

Most museums display less than five percent of the objects they own. Some items are too fragile to display or no longer fit a museum's mission. But as Harriet Baskas found out, there are plenty of other reasons some objects stay in storage.

Back in 1719, when Russian Czar Peter the Great opened what is considered to be the first public museum, he displayed all sorts of natural and human rarities: exotic butterflies, skeletons -- and living specimens such as Foma the Lobster Boy. Born with fused fingers and toes, Foma was popular -- even after his death. That's because he was stuffed and kept on display, which Columbia College professor Stephen Asma says "must have been horrific."

"The level of taxidermy at that time was really rudimentary," he tells Baskas. "Sort of like the same technique you'd use upholstering chairs. It was really low-tech."

Asma is the author of a book about the culture and evolution of natural history museums, called Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads. He says that in 18th-century America, there was even a proposal to pickle such prominent people as Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and other founding fathers.

"Up to the present, people continue to want see something exotic, bizarre, that hits them at this emotional, passionate level," Asma explains. "And I think the trick for current curators now is to have that sort of thing in the museum but to turn that emotional experience into something that people can learn from."

It's a balance between showing off great objects and telling a great story.

At the Smithsonian Institution, there are hundreds of worthy objects kept off display.

Steven Lubar is chairman of the history of technology department at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

"We have a nice collection of scrimshaw," Lubar says, "and as you can imagine, occasionally sailors made vaguely pornographic scrimshaw and I don't think we'd display that."

What's considered appropriate to display does change over time. Lubar says it took more than 125 years to transform objects collected the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination from ghoulish peep show to history lesson.

"Right after President Lincoln was assassinated," Lubar explains, "artifacts that were in that room ended up at the Smithsonian and the secretary of the Smithsonian then said, 'We'll take that stuff but we'll keep it offsite, it's not what we do here, we don't display that kind of thing.'"

Now, says Lubar, put into the right context, the objects seem appropriate. The items are currently part of the exhibit, "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden."

Chicago's Field Museum has a collection of shrunken heads made by an Ecuadorian tribe once known as the Jivaro. But curators at the Field Museum have decided to take the remains off exhibit. The heads were very popular, but the museum decided they weren't portraying an accurate image of the tribe.

"We have to be careful that people just don't come to an exhibit, look at the head and then immediately think the Jivaro are some sort of very savage, bloodthirsty people," says Gary Feinman, curator for the Field Museum's anthropology department. "After all, these people have descendents today who are trying to earn a living in Ecuador."

While discussions of cultural differences can spark debate, the Smithsonian's Eric Jentsch, a specialist in the NMAH's division of science, medicine and society, points to one object that's literally too hot to handle.

"We have in the safe a lead lined container that contains some of the original radium that Madame Curie possessed," says Jentsch. "There's a yellow sticker that says 'Caution: radioactive materials.' I've been told that it's the hottest thing in the building."

Hot or not, it's something the Smithsonian never plans to show, but has committed to keep.

This story is part of the Hidden Treasures Radio Project series, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cultural Development Authority of King County, Wash.

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