I know that love at first sight exists, because it happened to me.
I grew up pretty poor and, by any standards, I had a tough childhood that was very much grounded in realities. We didn’t have a lot when I was a child, but I was lucky enough to live a bus ride from the Natural History Museum. It was a long way, but I could save up my meagre pocket money and gather enough together to buy myself a Red Bus Rover and head into London to spend a day hanging around in the free museums.
When I was very little Dippy lived in a side gallery at the museum and, the moment I saw her, I knew that I was in love. I looked up into that doleful skull and I knew with absolute certainty that I would love her forever.
I’m not alone.
In 1979, when I was twelve, she made her lumbering way into the main hall (known as the Hintze Hall) of the museum and I felt that my darling dinosaur had finally come to her perfect home. In this hall she could truly show off her magnificent size and her long long long tail. I could stand back and see exactly how big she was, and I could even walk up the stairs and see right down into every part of her skeleton.
I’ve remained faithful to my first love and, when I took my own toddler to the Natural History Museum, I got to watch my daughter fall in love with Dippy too. She is now twenty-one and she still loves that dusty old dinosaur.
Now the museum plans to remove Dippy and replace her with a whale skeleton. Lots has been said about how (ahem) “discreet” the plans to do this were, and as a regular visitor I certainly knew nothing about these plans until writer and illustrator James Mayhew drew it to our attention.
There have been arguments about how Dippy is a model and the whale is a real skeleton and so that makes it more important….
Let’s deal with that argument first. Yes, Dippy is a model. An accurately constructed model in perfect scale, but she’s a model and there is no denying it. But so is the T-Rex in the next room in case anyone hadn’t noticed (unless people believed that they actually have a large lifelike “real” T-Rex) and the museum is full of other models. Models are important for children as they help them to understand a creature that they can’t possibly see anymore. We can throw out the “it’s only a model” argument. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering….those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park? CGI.
The next argument is that the whale represents a species at risk and to display a real whale skeleton will be important for the promotion of species preservation.
Hmmm…sounds interesting and slightly more persuasive, but hold on, isn’t this the Natural History Museum? Surely it’s not the Natural Species Preservation Museum? The whale is already well displayed in the museum, and the Mammal Rooms are very impressive, and well loved by visitors. There is also the issue that the whale is nowhere near as at risk as it was a decade ago, and so do we really need to have a display that is there solely to preserve a species? Is the whole rest of the museum going to go over to displays that are entirely about species preservation? If so, there is a whole bunch of taxidermy that is heading for the dump!
I’m not against whales, I love whales, but I love dinosaurs more.
One of the other arguments is that the Hintze Hall has housed many exhibits since it opened in 1881 and that Dippy is just another one of those. Really? Nothing has been displayed as long, or regarded with such awe and positivity as Dippy, so why change it? In this 21st Century world of branding and marketing most organisations would sell their souls for something so iconic and easily identified with. Multinationals would pay millions to be able to have a uniquely emblematic image, and immediately identifiable object for their organisations. It certainly seems foolish for a charity to remove something that is such an incredibly successful part of their identity.
That’s not the key issue though, the key issue here is that the real people affected by removing Dippy have not been consulted. The plans (apparently) have been displayed in the side entrance (yes, I know that many of you will not even be aware that there is a side entrance) where academics and sponsors and the like enter the museum. They are not the REAL people who matter here. In 2013/14 the museum had over five million visitors – I kid you not! FIVE MILLION!! Those are impressive figures for any organisation, for a museum it is mind-blowing. That’s as many as the Science Museum and the Tower of London added together.
According to their own evaluation the vast majority of visitors come to see the dinosaurs. The dinosaur exhibits were, by a very long way, the most successful and popular exhibits at the museum. In fact the museum had to operate a timed queuing system for the exhibits due to extraordinary popularity. The dinosaurs have always been the most popular exhibits at the museum, right from the day the doors opened. In fact the creation of the museum itself was largely due to the new science of archaeology and a need to house larger exhibits.
Who are dinosaurs most popular with, and therefore who should be the most important visitors?
Children, that’s who. I have tried to find out exactly how many children use the museum each year but the figures are (apparently) “not broken down that way.” That is a great shame. Last year I was working on the sequel to my book, Brotherhood of Shades, and there is a long scene set in the Natural History Museum. Whilst I was working on it I went and sat for a whole day in the main hall and on the upper landings. I watched the visitors ebb and flow through the hall and I’d say around 70% of the visitors were young children.
It was absolutely wonderful watching the children enter and crane their necks up to look at Dippy. I saw children react with pure joy as they looked up at her. Small people with their arms outstretched and their mouths wide open with wonder. I saw children shaking with excitement and on the edge of tears with amazement. More importantly, I watched them fall in love with the possibilities of the natural world.
That is what has been missed here. Dippy and the awe that she inspires lays an indelible mark on the life of every child that sees her, and yet these are the only group that have not been asked about the change. Every child that sees Dippy becomes suddenly aware of the scale of something that once walked the earth, and of the infinite possibilities of our gloriously blue and green planet. Seeing Dippy is humbling, thanks to her location in the Hintze Hall of this remarkable building children feel small, and insignificant, and acutely aware of how much can change. Dippy allows us a glimpse into the past and therefore sets our feet firmly in the present – nothing exists like her anymore and nothing ever will.
Children are blown away by Dippy and you can see how profoundly she affects them, and yet no one has asked the children what they want.
Before you take Dippy away and erase that wonder from all of our lives, and the lives of future generations, ask them. Ask the children. Conduct a survey in every primary and infant school in the country and ask them what they would like to see in the Hintze Hall – a whale or a dinosaur.
I can guarantee you that I already know what the answer will be.
Sign the petition to save her here.