Sculpture from The Lawrence on Display at the Smithsonian

July 27, 2023

Thanks to a generous donation and a new museum exhibition, a piece of The Lawrence has made it all the way to the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian. If your travels this summer take you to Washington, D.C., be sure to stop by the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to snap a pic with Lucy Selfie, a sculpture on loan from The Lawrence and the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). The display is only the latest example of our national and international reach. Through our curricular programs, professional learning, and other research and development, students and museum goers across the country and around the world interact with The Lawrence every day, often without even knowing.

In 1974, paleoanthropologists, who study ancient human ancestors, unearthed hundreds of bone fragments at a site in Ethiopia. The discovery of these bones, which date back to 3.2 million years ago, changed the course of anthropology. After analyzing the bones which made up approximately 40% of a skeleton, the anthropologists concluded they had discovered an incredibly well-preserved specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, a bipedal ape-like ancestor of modern humans. During the dig, the scientists were listening to The Beatles song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, which led them to dub their newfound specimen “Lucy.” The name stuck, and Lucy became famous the world over.

Lucy Selfie is a sculpture created by French paleoartist Elisabeth Daynès. It depicts a life-size Lucy, standing around three and a half feet tall and covered in hair. The sculpture is made of resin, silica, metal, and yak hair, and shows Lucy as she would have looked in life 3.2 million years ago, with one glaring exception. Instead of the earliest stone tools A. afarensis probably used, she holds a cellphone in her outstretched hand as if taking a selfie. The cellphone in Lucy’s hand invites us to reflect on the evolution of tools and how they impact our culture.

Per Smithsonian Magazine, Elisabeth Daynès wrote, “Lucy Selfie is a universal vector going beyond art and science…questioning each and every one of us on the meaning of the tools the 21st century is handing out.”

So how is this fascinating sculpture related to The Lawrence? After acquiring Lucy Selfie from the artist, Julie and Sébastien Lépinard displayed the sculpture at 836M, a non-profit arts organization with gallery space in San Francisco. It was there Lucy came to the attention of a friend of the University, who connected Julie and Sébastien Lépinard to The Lawrence and UCMP. The couple generously donated Lucy Selfie jointly to The Lawrence and UCMP with hopes that the two organizations could collaborate to use the sculpture to engage the public about the sculpture’s thought-provoking message and the significance of Lucy’s discovery. 

The sculpture is currently on loan to NMNH as part of their new “Cellphone: Unseen Connections” exhibition. The exhibition displays a wide range of objects and artifacts, including samples of the approximately 65 different chemical elements used to construct our phones, and one of the first cellular phones from the 1980s. The exhibit examines the cultural impact these devices have had on human society, and the unseen connections that our phones forge between us and a global network of people, labor, and infrastructure.

Lucy Selfie will be on display at NMNH until 2025, when she will triumphantly return to Berkeley. UCMP is developing a permanent exhibit entitled Life and the Planet that will display Lucy Selfie alongside other objects and specimens related to the development of life on Earth. UCMP and The Lawrence are also discussing developing joint educational programs around the sculpture, like field trips, lectures, and more. The two organizations have a long history of collaboration, having previously worked together on programs and exhibitions both at the museum on campus and at The Lawrence. UCMP consulted heavily on the Forces That Shape the Bay exhibition, a fixture at The Lawrence since it opened.

“The exhibit will be a great natural fit for the Lucy Selfie since she personifies what we all are: great apes with advanced communication skills that enabled us to share and accumulate knowledge, and to retain that knowledge and build further upon it from generation to generation,” said Dr. Cindy Looy, Curator of Paleobotany at UCMP.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in Washington, D.C., don’t hesitate to drop in and say hi to Lucy. If you do take a selfie with Lucy Selfie, be sure to tag us in your photo (@lawrencehallofscience). We’d love to see her and hear that she’s doing well on the big stage!

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