I Have Opinions About Dippy

1st cast in spot of honor

Dippy the Diplodocus has been at London’s Natural History Museum since 1905. Source

Historic fossil mounts are usually taken for granted. Classics like the the AMNH Tyrannosaurus (which turns 100 this year!) have been enjoyed by generations of visitors, and it seems out of the question that they might ever be retired from display. Such was the case with Dippy the Diplodocus at London’s Natural History Museum – this cast of the CMNH original has been at the museum since 1905, and has been the centerpiece of Hintze Hall since 1979. It was therefore something of a shock when the NHM announced on Thursday that plans are afoot to replace Dippy with a blue whale skeleton. For a few hours, at least, this was huge news. #Savedippy was trending internationally, memes were created, and petitions sprang up to keep the mount in place. To me, it was inspiring to see how much people care about this mounted skeleton. I’ve repeatedly argued on this blog that fossil mounts take on second lives in museums, and have cultural and historical meaning independent of their identities as scientific specimens. The outpouring of love for Dippy is as clear an example as I could ever hope for.

Things seemed to calm down once a few editorials in favor of the change made the rounds, most notably pieces at the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and the Telegraph. These authors make a strong case for the blue whale: it’s the largest animal to ever exist, but it’s on the brink of extinction. It reminds us of our role as stewards of the planet, and the impacts the choices we make today will have on future generations. Meanwhile, the opposition hasn’t offered much beyond “kids like dinosaurs.” Personally, I’m not steadfastly opposed to the change. A whale is an excellent symbol for the importance of protecting the natural world, and it certainly beats losing exhibit space to a new cafe or gift shop. I’ve also never been to the NHM, and my heart already belongs to another Diplodocus, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Still, Dippy is an irreplaceable monument deeply entrenched in history, and certainly deserves a thoughtful defense.

The MNH released this concept art of the new display. Source

Exhibit company Casson Mann prepared this concept art of the new display. Source

To review, the original Dippy fossils were collected in 1899 near Medicine Bow, Wyoming by a team funded by Andrew Carnegie. The Pittsburgh-based industrialist/philanthropist wanted to make a name for his newly-founded Carnegie Museum of Natural History by displaying the first-ever mounted skeleton of a sauropod dinosaur. The Diplodocus discovered by Carnegie’s team was (and still is) one of the most complete sauropod specimens ever found. Nevertheless, they lost the race to public display: the American Museum of Natural History unveiled its composite “Brontosaurus” mount in March of 1905*, while Carnegie was still waiting for his museum building to be finished. Not to be bested by the New York competition, Carnegie offered a complete plaster cast of the Diplodocus skeleton to King Edward VII. The replica now known as Dippy was on display in London before the end of the year. After completing a mount of the original fossils at CMNH in 1907, Carnegie went on to produce seven more Diplodocus casts, which he gifted to various European heads of state (read the full story here). In addition, at least four other Dippy replicas have been created since Carnegie’s death in 1919. Whether we consider all versions or just the London cast, Dippy the Diplodocus is among the most-viewed animal skeletons in the world. Its cultural impact, particularly in Europe, is astounding. More than any other specimen, it can be argued that this one made “dinosaur” a household word throughout the world.

*Natural history historian Ilja Nieuwland once commented that the first cast – the one still on display in London – was temporarily assembled in a Pittsburgh warehouse the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall in 1904. It could therefore be claimed that this was actually the first sauropod mount.

diplodocus_nocopyright

The Diplodocus cast in London debuted two years before the Pittsburgh original.

And yet, one of the recurring arguments to replace Dippy in the Hintze Hall is that it’s “just a copy” or worse, “a fake.” Of course, referring to a fossil cast in this way is a flagrant misrepresentation. Casts are exact replicas of real specimens, full stop. You can read about the reasons casts are made in the Fossil Mount FAQs, but suffice it to say that replicas like Dippy are just as useful to researchers as the originals they are based on in most respects – some have even been used for microscopic analysis. At the very least, it’s downright inflammatory to dismiss a cast as though it were a P.T. Barnum-era forgery.

But let’s say we don’t care about that, and we must adhere to a conception of authenticity that doesn’t allow for casts. Even then, this particular cast is a 109 year-old historic icon. Despite being made of plaster, this replica introduced the world to the immensity of deep time. Carnegie himself described it as way to foster international peace. It gave the multilingual troops in the first world war a shared word with which to refer to tanks. It was a harbinger of globalization and mass production. And yes, it has enchanted generation upon generation of schoolchildren. NHM director Michael Dixon said that the blue whale will bring the museum’s “societally relevant research” to the forefront, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a natural history specimen more societally relevant than Dippy.

Blue whale model at AMNH. Photo by the author.

Never let it be said that blue whales aren’t impressive. This model at AMNH is staggeringly huge. Photo by the author.

That brings me to the most irksome pro-whale argument. Michael Rundle contends that the whale “is “more profound than Dippy could ever be. We still share a planet, and a destiny, with this weightless behemoth.” It is true that blue whales are incredible, awe-inspiring animals, with a fate that depends directly on our own commitment to preservation. At the entrance to the NHM, the whale skeleton will be a powerful tool for educating audiences about the fragile condition of the world around us. But dinosaurs are just as relevant to ecological education. The best way to understand the modern biodiversity crisis is to look to the past. The fossil record lets us observe how organisms have responded to climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species over 4.5 billion years. In turn, this information helps us make informed choices about our future. A sauropod like Dippy is a particularly useful teaching tool. It could demonstrate how keystone herbivores can shape their environment. Or it could be compared to a mammoth or an elephant to show how different flora can lead to the evolution of completely different megaherbivores. The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.

Plus, nothing’s cooler than a sauropod.

13 Comments

Filed under dinosaurs, exhibits, fossil mounts, history of science, mammals, museums, NHM, opinion, reptiles, sauropods, science communication

13 responses to “I Have Opinions About Dippy

  1. Either decision makes sense to me, although it’s worth remembering that the Natural History Museum already has a vast model of a blue whale hanging from the ceiling in the whale hall. It’s one of the most impressive things in the museum and for people like me who first visit the museum as very young children, both the dinosaur and the whale stick in your memory forever.
    Whatever they place in the entrance hall will be fantastic and, what’s more, the Natural History Museum is free to enter so it will still be a major player in educating and exciting people about whales, dinosaurs and animals in general. They also have a dodo model and a preserved coelacanth in there.
    So it’s good to provoke debate and the museum authorities should take brave decisions to keep their collection relevant. The advantage of all this is that Dippy will go on tour: people are already asking for him/her (?) to come up north to Newcastle: http://metro.co.uk/2015/01/31/ex-football-club-chairman-wants-to-ship-dippy-the-dinosaur-up-north-5043893/.

  2. I agree 100%. I find this idiot act of cultural vandalism profoundly depressing.

  3. If I may correct you, the London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.

  4. Nitpicking aside: “The NHM’s rhetoric in favor of the whale unfortunately reinforces the idea that past life is dead, gone, and irrelevant. Nothing could be futher from the truth.”.
    This. Even though I can appreciate the museum’s wish to remain relevant, referring to Dippy as ‘just a copy’ doesn’t do it justice on a number of levels. Also, I have the feeling that natural history museums are often afraid of historicizing their collection too much for fear of ending up with a museum-of-a-museum (like in Paris); which can lead to change for its own sake.

    • Ben

      The conflict in older natural history museums between displaying modern science and respecting their own history is a fascinating one. I really like what NMNH did a few years ago with the Fenykovi elephant in their rotunda. The historic trophy-like display didn’t fit with the museum’s preservationist values, so they gave it a new context that shows how each of the museum’s departments are relevant to the elephant and it’s environment: http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/African-Elephant-63

      I don’t see why something similar couldn’t be done with Dippy.

      • Exactly. The Natural Museums in Brussels had to deal with this question because it can’t really take apart its old Iguanodon mounts without doing damage to them. The solution they arrived at was to make the difference between these historical mounts and modern interpretations explicit, and in doing so adding an important layer of meaning to the museum as a whole.

        One problem is that the NHM continues to perceive Dippy as exclusively a natural history object, and judges it by those standards alone (and even doesn’t judge it very well, apparently). Its meaning as a historical and cultural piece, specifically within the context of the NHM and London in general, gets totally lost.

        Finally, it may be interesting to know that UNESCO considers any museum display that has had a more or less unchanged curatorial history for more than (IIRC) fifty years, a piece of cultural heritage.

  5. Save Dippy! The Diplodocus skeleton in the hall looks so much better than a Blue Whale skeleton.

  6. I was initially very disappointed with the news, and I completely agree with your last paragraph on the scientific relevance of Dippy – the NHM is designed to teach us about the natural world both past and present, after all. After some thought, I have come to accept the whale, but I will look back fondly on seeing Dippy in the main hall whenever I visited the museum.

  7. Pingback: The planned vandalism of the Natural History Museum: a modest proposal | Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week

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