Things are buzzing in the sedate and cerebral corridors of London’s Natural History Museum. It’s the hottest debate since 2008, when the statue of Darwin was moved from its hiding place in the ground floor café to its current premier position half way up the main staircase. The stone eyes of Darwin have stared onto the iconic diplodocus skeleton in the museum’s Great Hall for just 6-years and now it’s all about to change again.
Did Sir Michael Dixon, the director of the museum, anticipate the backlash I wonder, when he announced that the great diplodocus, affectionately known as “Dippy” was going to be replaced with a skeleton of a blue whale? Whether he anticipated it or not, the internet has been sparking with indignation. Some, it seems just do not like things to change; which in some ways is ironic as science is all about change. Our knowledge and understanding never stays still and what we know about diplodocus is no exception.
As a teenager, more years ago that I am going to admit, my cousin and I frequently visited the Natural History Museum. In those days however, our arrival was greeted by a display of life-sized elephants because Dippy wasn’t moved to the Great Hall until 1979. To be more precise, it was, and always has been a copy of the original skeleton which was discovered in Wyoming in 1898. One of ten copies, it was donated to the museum and first displayed in May 1905. Since then has been in several locations, including the basement for safety during World War II.
In my childhood days, diplodocus was know as a brontosaurus and it was thought to live half submerged in water in order to support is 20 ton bodyweight. In fact the original display of the diplodocus in the museum’s Great Hall showed its tail laid flat along the floor, as it dragged behind the huge beast wading through the late Jurassic swamps 150 million years ago. It was even suggested that its nostrils were carefully placed high up on its head so it could hide underwater away from predators.
Knowledge however moves on. Further skeletal finds, the ability for computer modelling and animation, a better understanding of skeletal strength and physiology, and our view of the giant sauropod evolved. We now know that it avoided swampy regions and its tail was likely used as a whip, a weapon to ward off its enemies. A more ferocious animal than one that cowered beneath the water, for sure. The museum updated the display in 1993 by lifting the tail into a more representative whip-like pose. There was a scene in an episode of the TV programme “Parrot” (which is set in the period after Word War I) where the great detective walks past Dippy, shown in the Great Hall with its raised tail. Parrot, so obsessed with tiny detail missed the fact that in the time he might have walked the hall, Dippy wasn’t there, let alone slashing its tail at its imaginary enemies. I don’t recall any great outcry about this at the time.
And so the museum wants to evolve. The skeleton of the Blue Whale that will replace Dippy was acquired in 1891 and it’s the genuine thing, not a copy. It represents a species going towards extinction and so is considered more relevant to the modern world. The Great Hall itself is going to be renamed the Hintze Hall to recognise a £5m donation from the businessman Sir Michael Hintze. Even though I remember the Museum before Dippy was in the Great Hall (Hintze Hall) I’m not one of those protesting. The world evolves and things, including dinosaurs go extinct.