The New York Times recently reported on the less than stellar response Seattle had to its visit from our oldest ancestress, the hominid remains dubbed Lucy. The article suggested any number of reasons why what should have been a blockbuster show with lines around the block instead had half the expected visitorship: poor marketing, the Christmas-time blizzard that left Seattlites all-but homebound for nearly a week, the bum economy and even the negative image that Americans have of Ethiopia. These are all very valid excuses and I hate to be a wet-blanket, but the real reason why this show did not--and in my mind will not--succeed is that other than Lucy herself, the show just wasn't what I had expected.
I was jumping out of my skin to go see Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, so much so that I flew to Houston to see the exhibit where it first opened at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I kinda wish I'd seen the da Vinci exhibit that had been showing there instead.
Importance and Controversy: Why I Wanted to See the Exhibit
A little backstory on Lucy and the exhibit. Lucy is the oldest set of fossilized hominid remains ever found, making her essentially our oldest know ancestor at roughly 3.2 million years old. She is a truly one-of-a-kind. That's pretty darn exciting. She was unearthed in 1974 in Ethiopia and the people of Ethiopia take great pride in her, referring to her as "Dinkenesh," meaning "you are beautiful," suggesting someone precious and magnificent.
Since her discovery, scientists have been trying to learn all that they can from her, and despite the fact that they have been at this for more than three decades, they still have a long ways to go. Needless to say, they weren't too pleased about Lucy being taken away from them to go on tour for who-knows how many years.
The people of Ethiopia weren't all that pleased about Lucy leaving them, either. She is part of their cultural patrimony and as I said, a source of national pride. Some Ethiopians felt that she was sort of snuck out of the country without their consent for this tour, despite the fact that it was arranged in part by the Ethiopian government.
Museum professionals and paleoanthropologists were also upset by the proposed Lucy tour because the remains are so fragile, damage of some kind is almost inevitable. As a museum collections professional involved with traveling exhibits, I'd have to concur with that assessment. And once Lucy is damaged, well, like I said, she is one-of-a-kind. Prominent museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declined the show and others came out in vocal opposition to the very premise of the exhibit.
To top it all off, transporting Lucy out of Ethiopia violates a 1998 UNESCO resolution signed by top scientists that states that fossils should not be removed from their country of origin unless there is some overwhelming scientific reason to do so.
All of this controversy only made the exhibit more delicious to me--I had to go see this show! So maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe they were just misplaced.
The Reality of the Exhibit
Lucy herself in her hermetically-sealed transparent coffin was breath-taking. I still believe firmly in the power of the authentic and she is the real deal. But you wander through a lot of real estate before encountering Lucy and that floor-space is most consumed with selling Ethiopia. Huh? I thought I was going to an exhibit on physical or paleo-anthropology, not a travelogue about the nation where some important remains were found. Apparently, I was wrong. There was nearly nothing on human evolution and physical anthropology.
So, in short, I think that the developers of this exhibit quite simply got their audience completely wrong. People who are excited to go see Lucy the remains don't want to learn about Haile Selassie, they want to understand why three decades is not enough time to learn everything Lucy has to share with us and to better understand how she fits in with and informs our understanding of who we all are and how we got to be here at this evolutionary point in time. We want anthropology, not a travel brochure.
Sources for the Backstory on the Controversy:
International Herald Tribune