Nothing causes an uproar quite like a dinosaur.
Late last month London’s Natural History Museum announced that they’ll soon be freeing their famous Diplodocus cast “Dippy” from her frame to wander elsewhere – replacing her with the skeleton of an even more massive creature, the blue whale. Expert opinion generally fell in favor of this new arrangement. Dippy has had pride of place in the museum’s Hintze Hall for 35 years, the argument goes, and it’s time for a new museum mascot to capture the imaginations of visitors. Not to mention that huge whales already have a historic claim on the space.
The public didn’t agree. #SaveDippy became a Twitter rallying cry, even though the museum has announced plans to send their famous dinosaur on tour rather than languish in retirement. Dippy had become a fixture of the museum experience for many, much the way that “Brontosaurus” was the classic image of dinosaurness when I was a kid. Uprooting them, physically or figuratively, tears wounds that the logic of museum marketing can’t repair.
I’ve never seen Dippy in person. I’ve only seen her image in films and books about the great Bone Rush of the late 19th and 20th centuries, when philanthropist Andrew Carnegie instructed the museum that bore his name to find, excavate, and reconstruct her skeleton. And I feel torn by the kerfuffle. Where does Dippy belong?
Many in favour of Dippy’s replacement have said that she’s “just an old cast”. Museums are for looking at authentic objects, and there’s little room for plaster monsters created over a century ago. Author Philip Hoare, who wrote a book celebrating whales and unsurprisingly is in favour of the change, even went a step further to say “Dippy can wait until technology allows him to be regenerated, Jurassic Park-style, from his own DNA.” Whales are real living things, while dinosaurs are just dusty old bones.
But this is far too narrow a view. The story of how England’s preeminent museum wound up with Dippy in the first place has been conspicuously missing from the back-and-forth over her fate, and adds another layer beyond questions of dinosaurian relevance.
In the summer of 1899, Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologists got their sponsor for his dinosaur. It was a new species of Diplodocus – named in the tycoon’s honour, of course – and was astonishingly complete. Carnegie was so proud of his dinosaur, in fact, that he showed off a sketch of the skeleton to England’s King Edward VII when the monarch visited Carnegie’s Scottish estate, and the king was so enchanted by the dinosaur that he asked Carnegie if it might be possible to get a duplicate for what’s now known as London’s Natural History Museum.
The Carnegie Museum was able to oblige this colossal request, and in 1905 Dippy was unveiled in England. She was an instant hit. Newspapers celebrated the arrival of the dinosaur, and, while on the negative side, it speaks to Dippy’s popularity that British palaeontologists were a little envious of an American dinosaur getting more attention than their homegrown saurians.
England’s copy of Dippy was just the first step in Carnegie’s broader campaign. He gifted casts to Germany, France, Argentina, and other nations, too. Part of this was ego. Dippy was a stand-in for Carnegie himself, a Jurassic giant that foreshadowed the titan of industry. But Dippy was also a diplomatic dinosaur. The sense of wonder she inspired was supposed to bring people of all nations and backgrounds together.
Dippy is not just a cast, nor even a reflection of distant history. Industrialists, kings, palaeontologists, and the public have all contributed to the history of the dinosaur, making Dippy one of the most recognizable dinosaurs on the planet. And while I understand that museums must always strive for relevance, both for educational purposes and to draw dollars that fund science, a dinosaurian pull on our heartstrings cannot and should not be waved off. Dippy has become a creature of history as much as prehistory, and, regardless of where she winds up, I look forward to gazing up to see her smiling skull someday.