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Lucy Exhibit Receives Lower Than Expected Attendance

January 25, 2009

Officials from the Seattle Science Center paid millions to show the fossil remains of one of the earliest known human ancestors, but the exhibit failed to produce the expected returns.

President Bryce Seidl said on Friday the Pacific Science Center faces a half-million-dollar loss resulting in layoffs of 8 percent of the staff, furloughs and a wage freeze only halfway through the five-month exhibit.

The museum spotlighted the 3.2 million-year-old fossilized partial skeleton of a species with chimplike features that walked upright. The skeleton, nicknamed “Lucy”, was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and resulted in a major revision of theories about the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The fossil exhibit’s expenses have many museums reconsidering the planned six-year, 10-city tour, the Associated Press reported.

The Lucy exhibit underwent an expensive redesign at the Seattle center, where they added a large section on Ethiopian history and artifacts, an audio tour and interactive displays in which visitors can put themselves in the shoes of a fossil hunter.

Seidl called it a powerful story of evolution, culture and history, but unfortunately, he said, the museum isn’t getting the attendance required for an exhibit of its size.

A mere 60,000 people have come to the center to witness the exhibit, far below the 250,000 that were originally expected.

The current recession, which has cut into arts and museum revenue nationwide, has likely affected attendance, Seidle said.  He added that December snowstorms had also slowed travel within and around Seattle.

Seidl estimated the Lucy show approached costs of around $2.25 million, including a $500,000 fee to Ethiopia, which plans to use the money for cultural and scientific programs.

The current price tag was enough to keep the Field Museum in Chicago from joining the tour. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science decided to drop the exhibit after debating whether the irreplaceable fossil should be shipped around the globe.

“Lucy may not be anywhere other than Ethiopia after Seattle,” Seidl said.

But fascination with the skeleton still remains strong, according to Donald Johanson, the American anthropologist who discovered Lucy.

“As I travel around the country lecturing, people seem to have a deep interest in their origins, in their roots,” Johanson said.

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