The celebrated exhibit of Lucy -- the 3.2 million year old hominid fossil discovered 33 years ago in Ethiopia -- opens to the public in Houston, Texas, today. Controversy over the decision to send Lucy to the US as part of a larger exhibit on Ethiopia continues, even as the doors open to the public at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Voice of America English to Africa's Cole Mallard reports that some of the first visitors to view Lucy today may not be aware that experts continue to debate the decision to transport her to the United States.
Dr. Hans Sues is the associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History here in Washington. He says the Smithsonian is against bringing Lucy to the States,"We think that it’s a very bad idea to travel this priceless fossil because it’s one of the great pieces of human history, and like other things -- the Mona Lisa, or certain ancient Egyptian art objects, you wouldn’t want to travel it because the risk that it gets damaged is considerable, even with the most careful handling."
Sues says the scientific community has put into writing steps to protect precious artifacts like Lucy from what Sues sees as unnecessary travel risks, "The American anthropological community has actually passed resolutions condemning traveling Lucy on exhibit and our museum, which has a very large anthropology department, abides by this, and we don’t know why some of our colleagues want to proceed anyway…but certainly we would never condone bringing something this important to the Smithsonian on loan."
Sues adds that the scientific community in Ethiopia was not happy about the decision to send Lucy abroad, either,"It was very interesting, when the news first broke that the Smithsonian, along with other major museums, was very opposed to this we got messages of thanks from our Ethiopian colleagues saying thank you for speaking up on our behalf because our own government is obviously not listening to us."
On the other side of the argument is Dirk Van Tuerenhout, the Curator of Anthropology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He says that Hans Sues is using a somewhat narrow interpretation of the written document used to protect vulnerable artifacts, "The concern that is expressed by researchers, both in the States and in Africa --Ethiopia included -- refers to a resolution by the permanent council of the international association for the study of Human paleontology. And in that resolution people say that fossils should not travel for exhibit purposes, but [it’s acceptable] for research purposes."
Van Tuerenhout says that plans for Lucy’s six-year stay in the US may include research at the University of Texas in Austin. He says there she would undergo a CAT-scan, which would use a laser beam to explore Lucy’s bone structure -- both inside and out. He says the procedure is neither invasive nor harmful. Doctors use the same procedure to examine humans.
The museum curator says the research may help explain how Lucy was able to carry her weight – and therefore, how she walked. He says up until now, this type of research has never been done.
Van Tuerenhout also says whether Lucy should be here or not is a rather moot point, "Lucy has traveled to the States before. This is not her first trip. She went to the United States to be studied at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. So she’s been on a plane before, but this was in the 1970s, so this is a return trip for her, but the purpose is different."
Regardless of the argument over Lucy’s travels -- pro or con -- today she’s the star anthropological attraction in Houston, Texas. And if all goes as planned, she’ll continue to attract not only the curiosity of passing tourists to the exhibit but the seasoned interest of the international scientific community as well.