Lucy, the famed fossilized skeleton of one of the oldest human ancestors, is coming to visit the US from Ethiopia where Donald Johanson and his colleagues discovered her in 1974. Surprisingly, Lucy won't be on display at two of the premier natural history museums in the country, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Why? Those are just two of the museums who refused the exhibition, arguing that the fragile bones should remain in Ethiopia and not subjected to six years of touring and public display. The exhibit, titled The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, is hosted and sponsored by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here's Houston Museum anthropology curator Dirk Van Tuerenhout's side of the story from the San Antonio Express News:
"Our mission at the museum is one of education and promoting dialogue," (Tuerenhout) said. "We are honored that our museum was chosen to premiere this exhibition. We share the concerns for Lucy's safety, which also extends to the artifacts in the exhibit. Before we agreed to accept the exhibition, a respected team of conservators specializing in hominid fossils was brought in to evaluate Lucy's condition; they pronounced her to be hearty, robust and fully capable of traveling without damage."And the following is what paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program, has to say on the matter:
Lucy is not only part of Ethiopia's cultural heritage, Tuerenhout added; she is also part of world heritage. "She deserves to be on the world stage for all to see, and we applaud the Ethiopian government's decision to allow this to happen," he said. "She will serve as a unique goodwill ambassador for her country and bring greater understanding about our own past." Link
“From the outset, the plan to bring ‘Lucy’ to the U.S. ignored an existing international resolution signed by scientific representatives from 20 countries, including Ethiopia and the U.S. The resolution calls for museums–in fact, all scientific institutions–to support the care of early human fossils in their country of origin, and to make displays in other countries using excellent fossil replicas.The fossil above is not the real Lucy but rather the Smithsonian's cast of the original. Lucy normally resides in a climate-controlled safe at the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis Ababa. Mamitu Yilma, director of the museum, traveled with Lucy to Houston. From an Associated Press story earlier this month:
It’s especially distressing to museum professionals I’ve talked with in Africa that ‘Lucy’ has been removed from Ethiopia for six years, and that a U. S. museum has been involved in doing so. The decision to remove ‘Lucy’ from Ethiopia also goes against the professional views of Ethiopian scientists in the National Museum of Ethiopia, the institution mandated to safeguard such irreplaceable discoveries." Link
"People care about her. They tend to forget that she is 3 million years old. They forget she is a fossil," Yilma said. "Lucy is very precious. We don't have any replacement for her. Whenever any fossil is found, they are compared to Lucy..."For the remarkable story of Lucy's discovery, read Donald Johanson's classic anthropology thriller Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. Link
"It was like when someone you love is getting married, both happy and sad," said Yilma, describing her conflicting emotions when Lucy left Ethiopia. "The one thing that gives me comfort is that I'm here with her." Link
David Pescovitz is Boing Boing's co-editor/managing partner. He's also a research director at Institute for the Future. On Instagram, he's @pesco.