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March 13, 2009

Lucy's American Tour Fizzles

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The famous fossil Lucy has finished her engagement at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington, and has nowhere to go—yet. After a disappointing run in Seattle, the 3.2-million-year-old partial skeleton is being packed up this week, along with the rest of her traveling show, “Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia.” The fossil hominid and priceless artifacts from Ethiopia will return this month to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where officials are still trying to line up a new show for her at another museum before she returns to her African homeland.

Ethiopian tourism officials had high hopes for Lucy’s tour in the United States when she arrived in Houston in 2007. After 6 years of negotiations with the Houston Museum, they envisioned a 10-city tour for Lucy, which had never been on public display before, even in her own nation. Officials hoped that Lucy would be the kind of ambassador for Ethiopia’s cultural riches that King Tut was for Egypt’s antiquities. Initially, the exhibit did well—"Lucy’s Legacy" garnered great opening-day reviews in Houston, where the exhibit drew large crowds before it closed last September. But after she opened in Seattle on 4 October, she drew less than half of the 275,000 visitors initially expected. (The final count was 121,336 when the exhibit closed on 8 March.) Pacific Museum officials think that the exhibit ran into trouble because people were worried about the economy and didn’t want to pay $20.75 per adult ticket. “Family outings become a luxury when people are faced with layoffs, wage freezes,” says Wendy Malloy, media and public relations manager at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.

But Lucy had some baggage of her own as well—even before she arrived in the United States, a number of prominent paleoanthropologists protested that transporting and exhibiting the fragile, one-of-a-kind fossil could damage it. If that happened, the loss to scientists who are still discovering new ways to analyze fossils would be profound, because there are only a handful of partial skeletons of early human ancestors. So in 2006, several museums that were approached to sign up "Lucy’s Legacy" refused—including the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., as noted in a Science news story.

Houston Museum officials haven’t given up hope, though. They are in negotiations and hope to have an announcement of Lucy’s next stop within a few weeks, says Melodie Francis, director of public relations. Otherwise, Lucy will fly home nonstop. But that might not be so bad—she might make it home in time for the opening of a new five-story research lab at her home, the Ethiopian Natural History Museum, later this year.

—Ann Gibbons

Photo credit: Houston Museum of Natural Science

See also: The New York Times story about the Seattle exhibit.

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