Ancient History on a Road Trip

The other day on NPR, I heard this story:

World’s Oldest Hominid Now World’s Oldest Tourist

The basics:

One of the world’s treasures, the hominid fossil known as “Lucy,” is about to go on public display for the first time outside its native Ethiopia.

The Lucy exhibition has been praised by some as a coup for Texas and denounced by others as the reckless exploitation of one of humanity’s most famous ancestors. Renowned paleontologist Richard Leakey even called it a form of prostitution.

Next week, the 3.2 million-year-old fossil goes on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. It could be the start of a six-year, 10-city tour for Lucy…

There is now a huge argument over whether or not such rare archeological finds should be allowed outside their countries of origin at all. The main argument, of course, is that they are too fragile or could be damaged, which seems like a fairly good argument if you consider that these remains are still the subject of research.

On the other hand, some feel that this will greatly benefit Ethiopia. Certainly, no one would deny that Egypt gained a great deal from being seen as such an archeological paradise, and a great deal of its fame probably wouldn’t have happened if artifacts hadn’t gone on display around the world. As the president of the Houston museum put it:

“Being in the presence of the original of anything … takes the message that the object is trying to tell you to a different plane,” he says. “No matter how good the replica is, it’s still a replica, and that leaves people cold.”

This goes back a bit to Ann’s post about how much people seem drawn to seeing real bits of history, regardless of how meaningful those bits may be. There is something of a thrill to being in the same room with something real, of any significance. Imagine what it would be like to be in the same room with what is believed to be the world’s oldest hominid. This is why museum’s work. This is why we still go to see things like the Rosetta Stone, the Mona Lisa, or the dinosaur heart, even though we can see them better, in more detail, and with more explanation in books, movies, or on the internet. They’re not real until you can really see them.

So, the question is, do the possible PR benefits to both archeology and the country of Ethiopia, as well as the educational benefits to the world’s population as a whole, outweigh the possibility of damage to artifacts such as Lucy? Though I appear to have argued mostly for the museums in what I’ve written above, I’m not really sure. I write mostly from my experience as a museum-goer, and as someone who would be interested in actually seeing Lucy, but the NPR story did make me wonder what the best decision would be.

-posted by Dana

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4 Responses to Ancient History on a Road Trip

  1. kidsilkhaze says:

    I think what was most interesting about that story (which I only caught part of) is that the Smithsonian won’t touch Lucy with a 10 foot pole. Partially because the Smithsonian person they were interviewing (forgetting who it was now) that both the US and Ethiopia were two of several countries that signed a treaty stating that artifacts of this nature would not leave the country of discovery unless for research purposes.

  2. TheGnat says:

    While on the one hand, it’s got education and socio-economic revitalization on its side, the archaeological community has a point about not transporting artifacts needlessly. Most artifacts *are* very fragile, and no form of transit is guaranteed. If Lucy was being sent to Texas for research purposes, then it would be fine and even cool to also set up an exhibit in conjunction with that. But otherwise, it should stay nice and safe in its home.

    I can also understand Leakey’s perspective. To him, as much as these fossils are records, they probably also resound as the individual people they once were. Sending Lucy around the world to be displayed really isn’t different from shipping a friend’s corpse around to be gawked at by strangers.

  3. Sonetka says:

    I can see what Leakey means, but I also think that that ship sailed a long time ago – mummies and skeletons get displayed in museums all the time (in fact, we just a few skeletons at Historic Jamestowne which were fascinating, albeit much younger than Lucy!) Also, Body Worlds seems to be doing pretty good business. Lucy may well be too fragile to travel, but she’d hardly be the world’s only set of human remains on display.

    Logically, I think sending her on tour is risky – as TheGnat says, no form of transportation is guaranteed, and as an archaeological specimen she’s irreplaceable. Personally, though, I’d love to see her, so while my ego says “Keep her in Ethiopia” my id says to bring on the world tour :).

  4. And to think that I was considering visiting the Houston Museum of Natural History just to see this show… Seriously, folks – while seeing this show isn’t quite visiting Hadar, it is a lot closer to home. Lucy has always been an amazing sample that resonated from a symbolic viewpoint far more than she did from a scientific viewpoint, and her discovery in the mid-70’s netted a lot more funding and considerable respect for the science as a whole. Our little dead girl is going on tour to try and do it again, and maybe she will drag an appreciation of other aspects of Ethiopian culture with her when and wherever she goes.

    Guests and visitors that have never travelled more than a hundred miles from the place of their birth will have the opportunity to be exposed to someone who has come from a lot farther away in both time and space. It is my hope that they will come away with an appreciation for both lost and forgotten worlds (the Africa of today, and that of ~3.2mya) that truly transcends the exposure to television. This is a relic in every sense of the word – a physical object that links one very social primate to another through an intangible symbol attached to a very tangible object. You just can’t get that kind of resonance through replica alone.

    It is interesting that Leaky chooses to protest this decision based on his need to protect the integrity of the specimens. Scientifically, those stones have been pored over thousands of times and subjected to rigorous scientific inspection. They have been duplicated in plaster and rubber and through surface laser-mapping. Even their interiors could be mapped through MRI. The only thing left to do with those samples is to subject them to significant trauma, opening them up for a more thorough internal analysis as well as a destructive chemical analysis. Leaky does not want the specimens preserved for science, but because he wants to preserve the physical embodiment of the original relic.

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