One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing
Well, not quite. At least, not yet. But come the 4th of January, a long-time greeter will vanish from the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall, never to return. I speak, of course, of ‘Dippy’ the diplodocus, resident of Kensington since 1905 and – as far as I know – the only dinosaur with his own Twitter.
After a twelve-month reconfiguration to make his parts and pieces less vulnerable to the trials of travel, Dippy will commence a grand tour of the UK, including Birmingham, Ulster and Glasgow. He’ll leave a big space to fill in the Hintze hall, and that duty is to be taken up by a blue whale skeleton, diving majestically from the ceiling (though not, sadly, accompanied by a bowl of petunias, which I think is a missed opportunity*).
On a rational level, I understand why the museum’s doing this. First up, Dippy’s not a real skeleton – he’s a cast. Given the number of actual dinosaur remains in the NHM, it’s perhaps a little wilful to have a fake on display – especially with Sophie the Stegosaurus now guarding the side entrance. Personally, I suspect Sophie is the true mastermind of this change. As a genuine, near-complete dinosaur skeleton, it must gall her that an imposter has pride of place in her home. There’s also something (rightly) to be said about using the whale’s skeleton to promote awareness of the vast, beautiful creatures that still live on our planet, if in ever declining numbers. And I’m sure there’s a strata of NHM staff and directors who are sick and tired of their glorious and wide-ranging collection constantly being referred to as ‘the one with the dinosaurs’.
I’m going to be sad when Dippy finally moves on. I first saw him when I was six years old – I’ve an early memory of arguing with my great uncle about whether it was pronounced diplo-docus or diplod-ocus. This was long before the current dinosaur display was installed, and Dippy was undoubtedly the king not only of the Hintze Hall, but the entire museum (his only competitor was a T-Rex skull in an alcove). It’ll be very strange to see him gone.
Yes, he’s a copy, but does that really matter? It’s practically axiomatic that children love dinosaurs. Dinosaurs fire the imagination in the way that no ‘living’ skeleton ever will, because they existed in a time that’s so long ago it might as well be myth. They’re magic come to life, and the proof’s right there in bone (or plaster, in Dippy’s case). For some of us, dinosaurs are the first necessary step to dragons. And for me, Dippy was their representative. The ‘me’ of today is partially his fault.
Borrowing from Douglas Adams for the second time in one blog, does it really matter if the Mona Lisa has ‘this is a fake’ written beneath its paint in felt tip pen, if it was still daubed by Leonardo? To some people, sure. But not to most. It’s the same with Dippy. The thousands upon thousands of children (and supposed adults) who clap eyes on Dippy for the first time each year aren’t thinking ‘I bet that’s not real’. They’re too busy marvelling at a creature that’s been gone from the planet for millions of years.
Yes, the other dinosaurs in the collection achieve the same goal, but the location is important. Having Dippy in the entrance hall is a bold statement about science: that it transcends what we experience here and now, that it is capable of existing side by side with myth and wonder.
In fairness, the NHM have announced that Dippy is likely to return as a bronze statue, guarding the entrance from the South Kensington Underground Station. While it’s nice that this is the case, it’s also a little strange – it means that in the minds of the NHM, Dippy isn’t a physical thing. He’s a concept; an idea. One to be re-rendered at will into a new form. Will the bronze be Dippy, any more than a statue of Churchill is Churchill? (And no, I don’t seek to compare Dippy and Churchill. Old Winny has a long way to go before that’s an apt measure).
I hope, as the NHM hope, that having the (as yet) unnamed blue whale in the Hintze Hall will provoke just as much wonder as Dippy. Time will tell. I wish them every success, and I’ll be along to see our new cetacean overlord in the new year. (But we all know the true power behind the throne, eh Sophie?)
*Yes, I know that’s a sperm whale, but why let a little speciesism get in the way of a joke?