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Originally published January 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 24, 2009 at 11:02 AM

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Few lining up to see famous fossil at Pacific Science Center

Lucy traveled across 3.2 million years and thousands of miles to get to Seattle, but officials at the Pacific Science Center say few folks have turned out to see the world's most famous fossil.

Seattle Times science reporter

Lucy traveled across 3.2 million years and thousands of miles to get to Seattle, but officials at the Pacific Science Center say few folks have turned out to see the world's most famous fossil.

Facing up to a half-million-dollar loss on the exhibit, the center laid off 8 percent of its staff and froze wages, President and CEO Bryce Seidl said Friday. Workers are taking unpaid days off, and the nonprofit organization suspended matching funds for individual retirement accounts.

It's a disappointing outcome for an exhibit that was intended to be a blockbuster for the Seattle museum and a public-relations coup for Lucy's homeland of Ethiopia, Seidl said.

"It's a powerful story of evolution and culture and history ... but we're not getting the attendance we need for an exhibit of this scale."

Lucy had never before been on public display outside of Ethiopia. The partial skeleton of one of mankind's earliest ancestors was unearthed in 1974 in a remote corner of the African nation. The discovery of a species with chimplike features that walked upright overturned previous notions of humanity's evolutionary tree.

The exhibit cost about $2.25 million to mount, Seidl estimated. That includes a $500,000 fee to the government of Ethiopia, which plans to use the money raised during Lucy's U.S. tour for cultural and scientific programs.

The science center had hoped 250,000 people would visit during the exhibit's five-month run, which ends March 8. But attendance, so far, is only 60,000.

Seidl blamed the economic downturn, which has cut into arts programs and museum budgets across the country. December's snowy weather also robbed the science center of a traditionally busy month of parties and family visits.

Other museums around the U.S. have been tracking Lucy's poor showing in Seattle, and none has yet agreed to be the next stop on what was meant to be a six-year, 10-city tour. Chicago's Field Museum backed out of plans to host the exhibit because of the cost. Controversy over whether the irreplaceable fossil should be transported around the globe led the Denver Museum of Nature & Science not to follow through on early discussions.

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

But an official at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which worked with the Ethiopian government to organize the tour, said she's confident other museums will step up.

Donald Johanson, the American anthropologist who discovered Lucy, said fascination with the skeleton hasn't faded. "As I travel around the country lecturing, people seem to have a deep interest in their origins, in their roots," he said.

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Johanson will present a sold-out lecture on "Lucy's Legacy" Feb. 5 in Seattle.

The exhibit drew roughly 200,000 visitors at the Houston museum in 2007, and its run was extended five months. Seattle was the second stop on the tour.

The science center redesigned the exhibit from top to bottom, adding a large section on Ethiopian history and artifacts, developing an audio tour and building interactive displays that allow visitors to put themselves in the shoes of a fossil hunter. Extra costs include a full-time security guard and a $200,000 fee to the Houston museum.

Admission to the Lucy exhibit is $20.75 for adults and teens, less for youth and senior citizens. On Thursdays from 5-9 p.m., admission to the Lucy exhibit is $12 for all ages.

Seidl said it's not likely the science center will take on another such ambitious project for several years.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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