The other day on NPR, I heard this story:
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