Bones of Contention

Scientists fear that Lucy might be a crack exhibit for Houston

She's old, short and worth a lot of money. She hardly ever leaves her home in Ethiopia, so her planned trip to the Houston Museum of Natural Science would be a momentous occasion. But her bones are brittle and might get damaged in the journey. So, as Mick Jones would ask, should she stay or should she go?

At 3.2 million years and counting, the skeleton known as Lucy is one of the oldest and most intact examples of our hirsute ancestors. Classified as Australopithecus afarensis, the three-foot-eight Lucy resembled a chimpanzee-human hybrid who was comfortable both swinging from trees and canvassing savannas in search of good grub. Her discovery was especially important because it showed human ancestors could walk upright long before they shed their "apelike" characteristics.

Donald Johanson, then a paleoanthropologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, discovered Lucy in Ethiopia in 1974. After she was shipped to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History so casts could be made, she was returned to the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. There, she's held in a lab for safekeeping and research, while one of the casts is on display. She hasn't been moved since.

But Houston officials have had their eyes on Lucy for years. Former city councilmember Jew Don Boney was part of a business delegation to Ethiopia in 2001 that discussed bringing her here. Earlier this year, Texas Secretary of State Geoffrey Connor and Houston Museum of Natural Science brass met with officials in Ethiopia to confer about more plans for Lucy's comeback tour.

While there's no agreement yet, Houston museum officials are optimistic that there could be a 2006 round of visits, with Houston as the first stop. Over four years, Lucy and other Ethiopian artifacts might go on to exhibition in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Stan Hodge, director of tourism research for the state, says he did an analysis two years ago that pegged Houston's economic windfall from the exhibit at between $4 million and $7 million. Hodge admits, however, that there are so many variables -- including the lack of previous original Lucy exhibits -- that it's impossible to accurately predict any figures. He also says a $3 million range is broad.

"When anybody says that, they're basically saying, 'I don't know,' " he says. Officials have not revealed what kind of financial arrangements would be made with Ethiopia in return for lending Lucy to them.

Gezahgen Kebede, Ethiopia's Houston consul, says the exhibit would educate as well as promote interest and tourism in a misunderstood country. He also says the skeleton would spend time at UT-Austin, allowing scientists there a chance to study it.

"Ethiopia has 3,000 years of history," Kebede says. "Ethiopia has a very colorful story, and the story's not been fully told."

But moving a skeleton for a museum tour runs counter to a declaration by the respected International Association for the Study of Human Paleontology. It states that original specimens should be transported only for research purposes. The 1999 declaration, signed by 37 scientists from 20 countries, supports "the use of replicas…rather than the original hominid fossils, for public display to promote public awareness and understanding of human evolution."

Association member Yohannes Haile-Selassie, a native Ethiopian and curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, says the move inevitably would damage the fossils -- just for bragging rights.

"It looks like it's just bluffing, like, 'We're going to show the original Lucy,' which is not even displayed in its original country," he says by telephone from Cleveland. "That doesn't make me feel good. It's all commercial…when you anticipate $7 million, you would do anything."

But Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the Houston museum's curator of anthropology, says displaying the original would benefit both Houston and Ethiopia's underfunded National Museum. After the proposed tour, the entire exhibition (including computers, lights, etc.) would be donated to the National Museum, allowing the original Lucy to finally be displayed in her home. Van Tuerenhout says the skeleton could be shipped to Houston in foam packing and slipped into a display case without ever being touched.

"There's always risk," he says. "There is risk where she is right now. If you think about it, there could be a meteor that falls out of the sky. You can never completely protect anything 100 percent."

He says museums have safely transported original fossils for displays in the past. And art exhibits featuring original paintings and sculptures routinely are pulled off without any complaints.

"Imagine if you have an exhibit in, say, a fine arts museum…and you tell people, 'We're going to have the Mona Lisa, but by the way, it's not the real one, it's a copy.' How many people would come see that?"

Paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University is among those who signed the declaration against moving specimens for nonscientific purposes.

"It is a bit like the Mona Lisa, but it seems to me there is a difference between art and something like a skeleton," he says in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. "In order to appreciate the Mona Lisa…you would need to see the original. It's a bit like the difference between seeing a performance of a Verdi opera and listening to a CD. As far as Lucy is concerned, 99.99 percent of the people who would go to the Houston museum would not notice the difference between a really well made cast of Lucy and the real thing."

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