Lucy Ready for Her Close-Up in Houston

When the world's most famous set of fossilized bones goes on display here starting Friday, visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science will see what many in Ethiopia have never seen. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, "Lucy" is finally out in the open after decades under lock and key inside a vault.

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Inside a quiet, mostly dark, semi-circle-shaped room, there she is, Lucy, lying under thick glass inside a black case, illuminated with soft lighting that makes her seem to glow . With a guard standing nearby, visitors communicate in whispers, the clicks of camera shutters reminding them that this is 2007, not 3.2 million years ago when Lucy was alive. Dirk Van Tuerenhout is the Museum's Curator of Anthropology.

"When other discoveries are made, no matter how old, how young, the benchmark continues to be how does your find relate to Ms. Lucy. Is she older? Is she younger? Is what you found more important or less important, but it continues to be compared against this yardstick, this benchmark, which is why Lucy continues is so important and continues to be important."

Lucy, the earliest known example of an upright-walking hominid, goes on public display starting Friday, the first stop on a U.S. tour that could take six years. It's the first time since 1975 Lucy has been in America. She's mostly spent her time in a drawer inside a vault at the Ethiopian National Museum, with only replica bones on display to the public. Ethiopian ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Samuel Assefa says it's time to share Lucy.

"We are its custodians, but she's the origin of humanity. We all see ourselves in Lucy. I'm very happy that the highest confidence is expressed in our custodianship. In our hands she was safe for the 30 some years. If our custodianship is to be trusted, please give us the benefit of the doubt."

The museum won't say how much it paid the Ethiopian government to display Lucy here in Houston, but does say that some of the money will be used to fund museums in Ethiopia. Museum President Joel Bartsch says this is more than just about money and attendance.

"Beyond just the numbers, our expectations are that Lucy, as the goodwill ambassador, will truly introduce people to all that Ethiopia has to offer. It is an astounding country with a very rich cultural, scientific and religious heritage and we hope that people in Houston and around Texas, across the country and around the world will avail themselves to a literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Critics of Lucy's trip to Houston say there's too much risk involved in a U.S. tour and the people of Ethiopia in large part have not had the same opportunity to see her as Americans will. She'll be in display here through April of next year.

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