This Friday the Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening an exhibit called Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. The exhibit features the 3.18 million-year-old hominid skeleton Lucy, which remains the oldest and most complete adult human ancestor. The exhibit will also feature over 100 artifacts that highlight Ethiopia's rich cultural heritage. The exhibit has generated a lot of media attention, and not just because this will be only the fourth time the fossil hominid has been on display.
Some scientists and researchers fear that involving Lucy in a 6 year North American tour puts the delicate fossil at an unnecessary risk as it travels from Ethiopia, around North America and then back to Ethiopia. Some museums have refused to host the exhibit for this very reason, and several members of the scientific community have spoken out quite openly about their objection to the exhibit and the tour. Some Ethiopian immigrants in Houston are urging a boycott of the exhibit. And the exhibit goes against a 1998 UNESCO resolution, signed by scientists from 20 countries, that says fossils such as Lucy should not be moved outside of the country of origin except for compelling scientific reasons.
The president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science disagrees. “The display of original artifacts is crucial to the educational impact of museum exhibitions. Anyone can make a copy. But the experience of standing before an authentic historical artifact, whether ancient parchments or multi-million-year-old fossils, is a call to the intellect, to discover more about the world and perhaps even more about yourself. The Lucy fossil in particular evokes a strong response from everyone who sees her, and as such, she is the ultimate goodwill ambassador for Ethiopia. Lucy not only validates Ethiopia’s claim as the Cradle of Mankind, she also introduces viewers to the rich cultural heritage that has flourished in Ethiopia over the course of the last 3,000 years, and to the vibrant country that Ethiopia is today.”
Part of the reason Ethiopia agreed to send Lucy on this tour is financial – Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, received an undisclosed amount of money to release the fossil for the tour, and also gets a portion of the ticket sales. In addition, government officials hope that people who see the exhibit and who learn not only about Lucy, but also about Ethiopia, will be inspired to visit the country.
What do you think? Does the tour of Lucy put the fossil at unnecessary risk? Or, does the value of exhibiting Lucy and allowing people to learn and be inspired by the fossil outweigh the risk?
An interesting side note: Lucy was named after the Beatle’s song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds which was playing when the researchers were discussing what to name the fossil. In the Ethiopian language, she is called Dinknesh, which means the wonderful, the fabulous, the precious. And, Ethiopia does have some really interesting stuff – check out the amazing monolithic Church of St. George, for just one example.