Review of the Lucy's Legacy Exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
This exhibit is now at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington. I haven't seen the exhibit there, but I'm guessing that it's pretty similar to what was in Houston. If anybody who's seen Lucy in Seattle happens to come across this review, please leave a note in the comments section to let me know if they've changed the exhibit at all.
This past weekend, my family and I went down to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see the Lucy's Legacy exhibit. For anyone unfamiliar with this topic, Lucy is the nickname given to an Australopithecus afarensis fossil found in 1974 in Ethiopia (her nickname in Amharic is dinqineš, "you are wonderful"). At the time, she was one of the oldest, most complete hominid fossils found, and helped clarify a long standing question in human evolution of which came first - big brains or bipedalism. (Thanks to Lucy, and confirmed by other fossils, we now know it's bipedalism.) She is still one of the most complete early hominid fossils, and still very important to science (more info - article on Slate).
I'm going to do this review a little backwards. Lucy was the very last part of the exhibit, but since she was the main reason we drove 6 hours to go to Houston, she's what I'm going to discuss first. If you study human evolution at all, there's really not much to be said. You already know what the bones look like. Seeing them in person doesn't teach you much, but there's just something magical about it. I stood and stared at her for as long as my family would let me, and had butterflies in my stomach the whole time. To look down at that little 3'-8" skeleton, knowing how long ago she lived and how closely related we are to her - no words can do justice to the feeling you get.
Lucy's skeleton was in a case in the middle of the room, with all the bones laid out flat. There's was thick glass or plexiglass protecting the bones (or some other material - I didn't want to touch it and put my fingerprints on it). A few feet away on one side, cast replicas of the fossils were arranged in an upright position, in the way they would have been in life (similar to the picture of Lucy on Wikipedia). A few feet away on the other side is a fleshed out, full size reconstruction of what Lucy might have looked like (this article on Bloomberg has a photo of the head of the reconstruction). It was nice to see those three things together to put the bones into perspective. On the circular outside wall of the room was a 78 foot long, 10 foot high mural by Viktor Deak, artistically representing 6 million years of hominid evolution (if you subscribe to Natural History, the cover of the October 2007 issue shows a portion of that mural, and for the time being, their website does as well). I think the mural was my wife and daughter's favorite part of the exhibit.
I have to bring up one negative point about the exhibit. Just before you go into the room with Lucy, they show a short film about how she was found and the fossils' significance. And it was during this film that something jumped out at me as being wrong. I forget the exact wording, but the film said something to the effect that some scientists believe Australopithecus might have split into two groups - one giving rise to chimps and the other to humans. However, my understanding is that the chimp/bonobo and human split was around 6 million years ago (more info), and that australopithecines are on the hominid side of that split. And with Lucy being a member of the species A. afarensis, and living around 3.2 million years ago, she almost certainly was not an ancestor of chimps or bonobos, as that film seemed to imply (or at least what a laymen ignorant of human evolution might have taken away from the film, giving the film makers the benefit of the doubt and assuming they were referring to an earlier species of Australopithecus).
As far as I could tell, Lucy was the only actual fossil in the exhibit. Maybe I missed them, but all the other "fossils" I saw were cast replicas. They were still interesting, and still helped tell the story of hominid evolution, but didn't inspire the same awe you get looking at the real thing. There were, however, several stone tools in the exhibit, that actually were ancient.
Even though hominid evolution, and Lucy in particular, were the main points of the exhibit, they were really only a small part of it. Most of the exhibit was dedicated to more recent Ethiopian history, from a few thousand years ago on. As the Houston Museum of Natural Science puts it on their website, "In addition to the fossil of Lucy, over 100 artifacts such as ancient manuscripts and royal artifacts from a dynasty Ethiopians believe stretches back to the son of the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba will be on display." Most of those artifacts besides the manuscripts were painted diptychs and processional crosses. There were also a handful of weapons, baskets, and other miscellaneous artifacts. Afterwards, my wife told me that she enjoyed those paintings much more than the Lucy fossils.
After we got done with Lucy's Legacy, there was still the rest of the museum to explore, and the permanent exhibits were very interesting. I do have one gripe, though, and maybe it comes from living so many years in D.C. with the Smithsonian museums, where admission was free. But there were three other temporary exhibits besides Lucy - Lizards & Snakes Alive, Treasures from Shanghai, and Frogs! - that you had to pay an additional fee to enter, along with another permanent exhibit, a greenhouse filled with butterflies, that also cost extra. When you've got even a small family of three, those extra prices add up pretty quickly. So, we didn't go to any of those other exhibits, even though my wife really wanted to see the Chinese art, and my daughter really wanted to see the snakes and lizards. Even for members, the discounted prices are still 1/2 to 2/3 of the non-member prices, and since we don't live very close to Houston, becoming members doesn't make much sense. I suppose they have to pay for the exhibits somehow. It's just a little disappointing, when I've been to other museums, like the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where the regular admission price lets you see so much.
One final note - I really wanted to get some type of coffee cup or shot glass as a souvenir, but just about everything in the gift shop that had to do with Lucy had the same logo on it. And to be honest, I don't particularly like the logo, especially the way it looked printed out small on a mug. If they had just had a picture of the fossil itself, I would have bought one. So instead, I bought a copy of Carl Zimmer's book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins*.
I know I did a little bit of complaining there at the end of this review, but that's only so the reader knows what to expect when going to the museum. As I said, seeing the actual fossils of Lucy in person really was awe-inspiring. It was worth the 6 hour drive to get there, and I'd do it again in a heart beat.
* I haven't quite finished Zimmer's book, but I'll give a quick review after having read about 2/3 of it - I like it. It's not very in depth, so if you follow science news, you probably won't learn very much from it. But, it does have lots of pretty pictures that make it worth the price. Plus, if you don't follow science news as much as I do, or happen to know a person who doesn't know much about human evolution, it makes for a very good overview. If someone doesn't want to read the whole thing, but they're willing to listen to you explain something to them, you can still use the book, and open it up to some of those pretty pictures to help illustrate your point.