Lucy's Legacy - is the display of this ancient fossil too risky?

Lucy: Image courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Lucy: Image courtesy of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
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.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Well I want to weigh in on this issue but first I should make something really clear. These opinions are purely my own and may or may not necessarily reflect those of this museum (Science Museum of Minnesota).

I strongly feel that it is important for genuine objects like this to be shown publicly in museums. It is essential to our educational missions. Real objects draw people to subjects that could never draw their interest otherwise. They draw huge numbers of people to contemplate complex questions of science and engage them in discussions of our human origins.

Are there other ways to do this? Sure. But the display of rare and charismatic objects like Lucy's skeleton are one of the key things that make museums museums. Museums also help preserve objects for research by keeping them in safety far from public view. But objects like Lucy are not purely research objects. They are also important educational tools that draw the public into the process of science.

Unfortunately there are some financial realities to consider here as well. I would hope that the money that Ethiopia receives from the tour of Lucy is specifically supporting research and science education in Ethiopia. If this was the case this would make a compelling argument for the tour of Lucy as a way of actually bolstering the scientific capacity of Ethiopia.

posted on Tue, 08/28/2007 - 1:07pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this is so cool [=

posted on Tue, 10/16/2007 - 10:15am
eng's picture
eng says:

this is flippin asome it it is so sweat

posted on Tue, 10/16/2007 - 12:53pm
lil lil's picture
lil lil says:

hey this is cool omg we r goin to see her at houston museum in texas lol omg im excited ttul see yah

posted on Thu, 06/19/2008 - 11:06am
Mike Noel's picture
Mike Noel says:

Considering that the museum in Addis, although it does have a secure vault for the storage of Lucy's remains, is an un-air conditioned building whose windows, adjoining cabinets full of ancient and antique books on parchment, are often left open on the hottest days and not always closed when the tropical downpours arrive, Lucy may be safer here than in her home.We can all hope that the revenues from this exhibit, which we have seen three times and which still leaves us in awe, will be devoted to purchasing a climate control system for the museum. Finally, it has been requested that Lucy's bones be subjected to a CAT scan at the lab at the University of Texas, which might result in scientific knowledge which was not available when Lucy was brought to Cleveland after her discovery.

posted on Sat, 08/02/2008 - 5:05pm

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