‘Lucy’s’ Houston visit turns political – Ethiopians in the area decry plans to show famous hominid fossil – By CYNTHIA LEONOR GARZA, Houston Chronicle
Don’t count on too many local Ethiopians getting in line to see Lucy, the superstar fossil from Ethiopia, when she makes her international public debut in Houston in late August.
The Ethiopian Community Organization in Houston recently announced its position against the Houston Museum of Natural Science planned exhibit of the 3.2-million-year-old hominid.
The group blames museum officials and the Ethiopian government for what it says is a politically insensitive and profit-driven decision that could damage the fragile fossil during its trek to America. Museum officials and other exhibit supporters, however, said bringing Lucy to the U.S. is about cultural exchange — not politics.
“We have to be able to differentiate bad government and good government — government that has engaged in massacre, illegal election fraud, imprisoning people,” said Dula Abdu, one of the group’s board members. “As an institution, it would have been unheard-of for them to do business with the Khmer Rouge or Hitler or Mussolini.”
Museum officials defended their decision, saying their job is to display artifacts for the public. The country’s current political state is beyond the exhibit’s scope, said museum president Joel Bartsch.
“Every museum has a responsibility to be sensitive,” Bartsch said. “What we hope this exhibition will do is tell the rich story of Ethiopia well beyond the last 20 years.”
The exhibit will highlight the country’s history and pre-history and not current headlines, he said.
And the latest international headline: On Monday, Ethiopian prosecutors recommended that 38 politicians and activists be put to death for their role in attempting to overthrow the government. Last week, Human Rights Watch reported that the Ethiopian military forcibly displaced thousands of civilians, confiscated livestock and destroyed villages in its campaign against an insurgency.
“The sad commentary is a museum of this significance does not have a bit of the wherewithal to learn about this regime and to do business with it,”said Moges Meshesha, 46, a member of the group who came to the U.S. more than two decades ago under political asylum from Ethiopia.
“There are dirty politics behind Lucy,” Meshesha said, insisting that the museum “has the ethical and moral obligation to draw the line.”
Local feedback sought
The museum reached out to the local Ethiopian community for feedback early in the negotiations, Bartsch said. The Houston-area Ethiopian population is estimated at 6,000 by the community organization.
Bartsch still hopes those residents will support the cultural exchange that will benefit Ethiopians and people in North America.
He said experts who have examined Lucy describe her condition as “robust” and “hardy.”
Lucy isn’t the oldest human ancestor ever discovered, but hers is among the most complete skeletons — at 40 percent. Bringing her to Houston took more than four years of negotiations and numerous visits to Ethiopia and involved a handful of politicians and local leaders.
Online tickets for the exhibit, Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia, went on sale Jan. 1 and, so far, 700 tickets have been sold. The Bodyworlds exhibit last year has been the museum’s biggest attraction, drawing more than half a million visitors in more than six months.
The Lucy exhibit will also feature other artifacts to help tell Ethiopia’s history over the past 5 million years.
On a trip to Houston in March, Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgis dismissed scientists’ concerns that Lucy is too fragile to travel.
“This will help with the public relations and tourism of our country,” he said.
Officials at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., were unavailable for comment.
The Smithsonian Institution refused to take part in the traveling exhibition — and other prominent paleontologists have concurred — citing an international agreement not to transport hominid fossils from their ancestral homeland except for significant scientific reasons.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, made several trips to Ethiopia with museum officials to help broker a deal. He said his experience in working with government officials from Ethiopia was “very positive.” The State Department describes Ethiopia as an ally in the U.S. global war on terrorism.
Ellis said his connection with the African nation dates to when he worked with U.S. Rep. George Thomas “Mickey” Leland, who died in a plane crash in Ethiopia in 1989. The name of the late Houston Democrat, revered in the country for his humanitarian efforts there, opened doors during the negotiations, Ellis said.
The acquisition is a “coup for Houston” and the “envy of museums around the world,” he said.
“As you can imagine, museums have everything to do with culture and educating the public and the world about a society,” Ellis said. “Museums have very little to do with politics and that was the case with the Russian exhibit that was there recently and exhibits from China and exhibits from other great cultures on the Earth where we have political differences.”
Jeff Moseley, president and chief executive officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, said Lucy is a treasure the world is waiting to see.
“We understand that there are expats who are not happy with the way things are being run back in Ethiopia and that is certainly their right and their privilege,” Moseley said. “As Americans they have the right to express themselves.”