Friday, 14 August 2015

Our best dinosaur may go missing…

For 110 years, ‘Dippy’ has been the central attraction at the Natural History Museum, but he is about to be replaced by a blue whale and go on tour… Melonie Clarke asks why

Written by Melonie Clarke
At the ripe old age of 110, Dippy the Natural History Museum’s diplodocus is off on a new adventure for the first time since his kind walked the earth 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic period.

When King Edward VII saw an illustration of the diplodocus skeleton at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, owned by Scottish-born millionaire Andrew Carnegie, he fell in love and wanted a copy. The specimen was the first nearly full skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur (lizard-footed plant eaters with long necks and tails) to go on display in the world.

Andrew Carnegie then commissioned a cast of the near-complete Diplodocus carnegii (discovered in the western USA in 1898, and named after him), taking 18 months to make and 36 crates to ship the 70ft-long, 14ft-wide and 14ft-high cast to England. In 1905 it was unveiled in a special ceremony with 300 guests at the Natural History Museum.

Dippy is one of 10 replicas of the original D. carnegii skeleton in museums around the world, including Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Moscow. The tour he is now set to go on is not the first time he has moved around, although this time he will be going a tad further afield.


On arrival at the museum he was displayed in the Reptile Gallery, and was then dismantled and moved to the basement during the Second World War. He finally made his home in the museum’s central hall (now known as Hintze Hall after a £5m donation from the millionaire businessman Sir Michael Hintze) in 1979, where he has greeted visitors since.

Once Dippy is packed, or rather his 356 bones in total, which will have to be taken apart and assembled afresh at each new destination, an 82ft female blue whale, the biggest living creature on Earth, will take his place. The genuine skeleton of the watery one will hang from the ceiling of the hall, greeting guests when Dippy is on tour in 2018.

Injured by a whaler and beached at Wexford in Ireland, the whale was one of the first specimens to be bought by the museum, at a cost of £250. The museum, struggling to find space for it, stored it when they acquired it in 1891 (10 years after the institute opened), fi rst going on display in 1938 to mark the opening of the Mammals Hall, and will arrive in its new home in the summer of 2017.

‘A UK tour of this iconic dinosaur will surely prompt curiosity and a desire to explore, helping to inspire the scientists of tomorrow,’ says Sir Michael Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum. ‘We are committed to making iconic items in the national collections more accessible, working with partners around the UK so that museums around the country can all benefit.’

Showcasing a whale skeleton is the museum’s way to reaffirm our relationship with the natural world, and how important it is for us to preserve it. ‘This is an important and necessary change: the redisplay of Hintze Hall marks the beginning of a decade of transformation for the museum.

‘As guardians of one of the world’s greatest scientifi c resources, our purpose is to challenge the way people think about the natural world, and that goal has never been more urgent,’ says Dixon. ‘As the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth, the story of the blue whale reminds us of the scale of our responsibility to the planet.


‘This makes it the perfect choice of specimen to welcome and capture the imagination of our visitors, as well as marking a major transformation of the museum.’

But opinion about Dippy’s gallivant around the UK is split, with Dixon himself commenting, ‘If I am honest, there has been concern about Dippy going.’

The museum has had to defend itself from claims that the removal of Dippy would make more room for tables at corporate events (the museum charges a rate of £22,000 per day to hire space), leading people to question whether Dippy’s tour is a big money-generator.

‘Moving the central specimen and suspending it from the ceiling would only make space for three extra tables at a seated dinner, a four per cent increase on the current 71-table total,’ a spokesman said recently.

Despite public opinion and online campaigns to ‘save Dippy’, it looks as if Dippy will be packing his bags regardless. The silver lining is news that, according to Dixon, a copy might end up in the grounds of the museum.

‘We’re looking to produce another replica that can go outside. Dippy has always been in the middle of a building, and out of context, so this will be about putting him in a story of his own time.’

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