An Interview With Dirk Van Tuerenhout
The Houston Museum of Natural Science curator of anthropology talks about this month’s new exhibit, Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia.
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I understand it took about four years of negotiations between the HMNS and the Ethiopian government before Lucy’s Legacy came to fruition. Who approached whom?
Exhibits of this size typically take a number of years to come together so the timeframe is not necessarily extraordinary. But in this particular case, the initiative came from the Ethiopian government itself as a means to elevate the profile of their country abroad. Houston benefited from the fact that, as of four years ago, it had one of the few Ethiopian consuls in the United States. Another connection is that there is a terminal in our international airport [and a federal building downtown] named for Mickey Leland, the U.S. congressman who died in Ethiopia while trying to alleviate poverty and famine and who is well known there. In terms of economics, Ethiopia is known for coffee, and I was told that one of the major ports through which coffee comes in to the United States from Ethiopia is—guess what—in Houston. For all of those reasons the city of Houston was selected and ultimately, the Houston Museum of Natural Science was selected.
So from the start, the Ethiopian government agreed to let Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old fossil, go on tour?
Yes. That in itself is an incredible decision because she is, in my opinion, Ethiopia’s equivalent to the Mona Lisa.
How were the other artifacts included in this exhibit chosen?
Over the past four years we traveled to Ethiopia several times and visited with our counterparts and colleagues in the museums in the capital as well as in the outlying areas. For example, we went to regional museums in the northern part of the country, in cities like Aksum, which has a very rich history and is the city where, according to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark of the Covenant is kept. We won’t be able to put that on display for obvious reasons. That is going to stay over there. But nonetheless, we went to the museum in Aksum, we went to a museum in the city of Harer, which is southeast and in a Muslim part of the country. We traveled around looking at various churches, we saw Lake Tana, and we took a lot of photographs in Gonder, which is also in the highlands. So we put together a wish list of artifacts that would help us tell a story and then submitted it for approval to an Ethiopian commission, which was made up of all kinds of representatives from various departments and museums and government officials. Then a decision was made based on what could and could not travel. Miss Lucy has already had her interview at the American Embassy and her passport is ready to go.
What are the logistics of transporting Lucy?
She will travel in specially made suitcases, and there will be a security detail that will come with her.
I understand that part of the proceeds from the exhibit will be going to the National Museum of Ethiopia, which is in Addis Ababa?
The proceeds that will go back to Ethiopia will be distributed among the museums.
Where will Lucy’s Legacy travel to after it leaves Houston next April?
We have permission to organize a tour, but we are still working on the details. Ideally it will travel for six years throughout the United States.
You’ve compared Lucy to the Mona Lisa, so to a visitor who has no prior knowledge of this relic, how would you explain her significance?
The story line presented in this exhibit is bigger than Lucy because it highlights about five million years of history. Basically it starts with the earliest-known fossils that have come from Ethiopia—Lucy is not among the earliest, but she is the most important one—and then continues into the past “mere” two thousand years. The importance of the exhibit centers on a number of things: First of all, you get this incredible picture of a deep history, not only of Ethiopia but also of mankind, and that’s where the second point of importance comes in. I’m certainly biased because I’m very interested in this, but most of us have probably at one point or another thought, “Who am I? How do I fit into the big picture? Where do we come from?” You see those questions reflected in popular culture. So by having the real Lucy visiting, we have an opportunity to bring people in and explain what the search for early humans entails. In addition to that, we would like to present answers to questions that we anticipate from viewers: How do we know Lucy was female? How do we know she ate this kind of food. How do we compute her brain size? Why do we say she still climbed in trees, and does that mean she lived in trees all the time? If not, how do we know if she walked upright? All these questions will be integrated into text panels and plasma touch screens throughout the exhibit.
Lucy herself will be displayed in a frame, correct?
The original fossil will be displayed lying down in a specially designed case for presentation and security purposes, but we will also have a fleshed out model of Lucy. There will be a mirror, and we’re setting it up in such a way that you will hopefully look into the mirror and, looking over your shoulder, see Lucy. Above the mirror we’re going to reprise part of the title of the exhibit, Lucy’s Legacy, which, by the way, is you and me.
And the reason she’s such an important discovery is because so much of her skeleton was found and she seemed to prove that walking upright came before brain growth.
Exactly. You’ve touched on two very important points. First, her skeletal remains were about 40 percent complete; but because she was bilaterally symmetrical, we can replicate if one part is missing so we have even more information than meets the eye. She also represents evidence that in the sequence of events, upright walking came first, which was an important realization. We modern humans like to think of ourselves as very smart, so therefore we would have liked it if brain growth happened first and somehow by sheer will power we just decided, “You know what? Walking on four legs is just not for us anymore. We’re going to start walking upright.” But it didn’t happen that way. So even today she remains a touchstone; when people find new fossils, whether they are older, younger, better, or worse, there will always be one question coming from the media and other researchers, How does that compare to Lucy?
Ultimately, what do you hope people will take away from this exhibit?
That Ethiopia is really one of those well-kept secrets in Africa. If you think about Africa, Ethiopia perhaps comes to mind only in negative terms—famine, warfare, things like that—but the country is changing and has changed. It is a country well worth visiting; it has all these treasures, not just cultural, but also natural treasures. There are a lot of people going over there for bird watching, for example. So what I want people to walk away with is a better understanding of the long history that makes Ethiopia so special. Another thing I would like people to walk away with is a better understanding of our deep history as the human race.