The premise of Night at the Museum
is simple but totally compelling — every evening, once the lights are turned out and the front doors shut, the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History come to life. The Tyrannosaurus rex runs rampant. Dexter, the capuchin monkey, wreaks havoc. The replica of Theodore Roosevelt does indeed wax eloquent. And the Neanderthals — possibly protesting Ron Perlman’s performance in Quest for Fire
— torch their own display.
I love the idea that exhibits have secret lives, hidden away from us casual museum-goers — that what we see when we walk by a static, glassed-in set of artifacts is merely the smallest fraction of an exhibit’s life. It’s easy to think of museum exhibits as static entities, but artifacts on display are actually dynamic objects with their own, unique histories. When I set out to design, research, and write Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils
, I very much wanted to explore the idea that fossils, like any object in a museum, have their own secret life histories — their own hidden biographies.
On the surface, a fossil has a pretty simple story: An organism lives, it dies, it fossilizes, and millions of years later, scientists dig up the fossil, study it, and then put it in a museum. Most afterlives of fossils — the part where scientists discover and study them, eventually putting the specimens in a museum — share these common narrative elements.
But famous fossils are different from other fossils that live quietly in museum drawers by the very nature of becoming celebrity discoveries. I couldn’t believe that the lives and afterlives of the magnificent seven — from Lucy to Neanderthals to even the Piltdown Man — could be easily summed up by sticking to the same plotline of discovery-to-scientific-study-to-museum. I was curious how the different events in each fossil’s afterlife — controversy, intrigue, media attention, marketing, whatever — contributed to the personae we’ve created for each of these fossils. In Seven Skeletons
, I wanted to explore the stories that connected these points in a fossil’s afterlife. I wanted to see what happened when the lights went out — what happened to the fossils when we weren’t looking.
To find the hidden histories of the fossils, I found myself drawing from a plethora of sources. I explored archives at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and those at the Natural History Museum in London. I spent hours reading through scientists’ letters, looking at photographs, checking out the cultural ephemera (poems, doodles, postcards) related to the fossil discoveries. (Conclusion: there is some spectacularly bad poetry and fan fiction about fossils cranked out in the early 20th century.) I went to museums and their gift shops, to see how different institutions immortalized different celebrity ancestors. (I found a set of nail clippers in a South African museum gift shop with the likeness of a famous South African fossil enameled on top.) Since Lucy reigns over the study of human origins as the grand dame celebrity of the science, I ordered microfilm copies of the Ethiopian Herald
through interlibrary loan to read her press conference that was held in Addis Ababa in 1974. (The student worker asked me in awed tones what microfilm was.) I interviewed scientists, historians, and museum curators that had spent their professional careers working with these famous fossils.
I found that the history of each of the seven celebrity ancestors was really a matryoshka doll. As I uncovered different stories and different sources, I found that these fossils were full of nested stories-within-stories and for each story nestled within another, there were layers-upon-layers of meaning that we had ascribed to the fossils through history, science, and culture. Just because we weren’t looking at them, so to speak, didn’t mean that these fossils didn’t have vibrant, interesting, complex lives — and just because we aren’t consciously thinking about how our decisions influence a fossil’s life, doesn’t mean that our actions aren’t impacting the afterlives of these famous fossils. The scientific celebrity that each of these seven fossils has obtained is completely unique to its own history and its own context. Every fossil’s history is contingent on the stories that surrounded it.
I wanted to see what happened when the lights went out — what happened to the fossils when we weren’t looking.
has changed how I look at fossils in a museum. The details, stories, and small bits and pieces accrued from my stints in archives mean that when I look at the australopithecine Lucy, for example, now I’m not just seeing the most recognizable human ancestor of the 20th century. I’m not just seeing her as the story of her discovery and naming that’s practically canonical within the science of human origins research. (She’s named for the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” that scientists were playing at camp in the Ethiopian desert when the fossil was discovered.) I now see Lucy as a fossil that’s become a national icon. I see a fossil that has become an anthropomorphized, familiar character in the narrative of human evolution. She’s transcended merely being a fossil in a vault at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, embracing her afterlife as a fossil that has become an ambassador for science. I see a fossil that has become a cultural yardstick for measuring every other fossil hominin.
I’d like to think that there could be a Night at the Museum, Smithsonian Edition
, where the fossils in the Hall of Human Ancestors would come to life. We would see Lucy, of course, guiding visitors Virgil-like through an incredible paleo-soiree, much how she guides visitors through the Smithsonian’s exhibit now. Flo, the hobbit, would be there; Sediba from South Africa; the Old Man of La Chapelle would carry the Neanderthal banner; maybe even some sort of nod to the contentious Piltdown Man hoax. While not the stars of the silver screen, the fossil of Seven Skeletons
are very much alive — their histories and their stories continue to unfold, constantly changing and shaping their identities. Their futures are what we make them.
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has degrees in history and anthropology and a PhD in history and philosophy of science from Arizona State University. She has participated in field and archival work in South Africa, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Iran, and the American Southwest. She has published articles and essays in The Atlantic
, and Public Domain Review
. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she is an avid rock climber and mountain biker. Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World's Most Famous Human Fossils
is her most recent book.