Why is Lucy Tanking?

You probably know by now that the travelling exhibit featuring the bones o Al-288-1, known to most as “Lucy,” has been drawing small crowds, and the museums that are hosting it are losing money. Why?

I have guess.

You may remember that when the news first got around that Lucy would be on tour, there was a fair amount of discussion regarding the possibility that this was a bad idea. The fossils are delicate, and there is a good argument that they should not be moved for this purpose.

I may be wrong about this, but I think the palaeoanthropology community is sort of divided on this issue, and enough people in this community are not in favor of this exhibit that there has not been the excitement generated among science communicators, educators, journalists, and dare I say, bloggers, to spark the broader interest in each region the fossils are traveling to. Not enouhg basic internet = no tipping point. The default ‘profit’ for a museum exhibit is below zero. It is probably the case that the door take for almost everything a museum does is negative relative to the cost. The occasional block buster (as Lucy could have been) and other sources of money keep the museums open.

And the lack of interest in Lucy has not been the result of the usual suspects, such as the economy:

Although many museums nationwide are struggling, laying off employees and scaling back exhibition plans, the recession has not hurt every blockbuster that has opened over the last year. Since it opened in October at the Dallas Museum of Art, the show “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” has broken all of the museum’s attendance records. At the Field Museum in Chicago, an exhibition called “The Aztec World,” which opened in October, has also been a success. The general adult entrance fees on those shows are higher than admission was to Lucy.

More here.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    March 13, 2009

    So how good is the exhibit? I go to museums and was a friend of my local museum when I could afford it, but I’m not paying $20 to look at Lucy’s bones on a table with some displays around. The other exhibits you mentioned have a lot of stuff and a narrative of a culture to go along. Does this one? It could just be a lousy presentation.

  2. #2 Romeo Vitelli
    March 13, 2009

    By and large, people aren’t going to line up to look at human remains alone. Just about anyone with a genuine interest in human anthropology has already seen details about Lucy online (including in-depth pictures that are probably better than the quick glance they’d get at the museum).

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    March 13, 2009

    The NYT piece I cite give some information on the quality of the exhibits. I think they have more than just a table or two.

  4. #4 scubchick1986
    March 13, 2009

    I went to the exhibit in Seattle, and can say that it’s definitely worth the price. Seeing Lucy is amazing, but nearly rivaling her is the extensive display of Ethiopian history. The exhibit begins with room after room of Ethiopian artifacts, and tidbits about the history of the country. Much of it will surprise viewers because Ethiopia has an amazing and unique history. Then the exhibit transitions into displays on bipedalism, comparisons of humans, chimps, and Lucy, information about human evolution, and about how Lucy was found. The culmination is a large round room with Lucy’s bones displayed in the middle, and other, related exhibits around the room. I’ll admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed by the actual bones, but for that combined with the rest of the exhibit, it’s well worth the price of admission.

  5. #5 scubachick1986
    March 13, 2009

    I might add that my experience was very much enhanced by something not available to the general public. I’m the president of the Biology Honor Society at the University of Washington, which is also home to the fantastic paleoanthropologist, Patricia Kramer. She is the voice of much of the science section of the exhibit on the audio tour. She also came to speak for one of our club meetings just before we went as a group, so we had an opportunity to ply her with questions and delve a little deeper into some of the more complicated science involved.

  6. #6 Phil
    March 14, 2009

    1. Bad timing, being in a recession.
    2. After all, Lucy is just one set of bones. Tutankhamun was an entire tomb of goodies.
    3. No good movies on human evolution. As opposed to lots of mummy movies and even a few good movies set at the time of the Spanish in South America (yes in know the Aztec were in Mexico and thus in North America).
    Ask any kid or person you see on Jay Leno Jaywalking about mummies or Aztec gold. Then ask them who was Lucy. I get 99 out of 100 say it’s Charlie Brown’s arch nemesis.

  7. #7 Yoder
    March 14, 2009

    I saw Lucy at the Pacific Science Center around Thanksgiving. It was a fantastic exhibit – did a great job of putting the centerpiece into context with current science on human evolution, and had some cool hands-on bits to do with paleontological methods. It was paired with an exhibit on Ethiopian culture and history that was also excellent.

    Both parts seemed well attended, but that was on a holiday weekend.

  8. #8 Sarah
    March 18, 2009

    I saw Lucy at the PSC just a couple of weeks ago for a Darwin birthday celebration they held. I thought the exhibit that showed where Lucy fit in context was great. The Ethiopian part I cared for less (for various reasons). I would suggest the biggest reason that Lucy didn’t do well in Seattle is pretty simple and has little to do with the weather or the economy (though maybe the election stole a little).

    PSC did a very poor job of marketing it. I, and everyone I work with (all in the sciences), had no idea Lucy was here until about a month before the show was over! I didn’t see billboards and even at the PSC it wasn’t clear that there was a show there.

    To contrast, the human bodies exhibits a couple years back had bus ads and large signs everywhere, you couldn’t have missed it (though I didn’t go). PSC just failed on this one, and it’s unfortunate.