The planned vandalism of the Natural History Museum: a modest proposal

February 10, 2015

Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)

google-search-for-nhm

In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)

The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.

And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.

diplodocus_nocopyright

As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:

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.

There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.

So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.

Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.

16222408

I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.

The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.

Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.

One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.

There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.

Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?

The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:

2528769B00000578-2930638-image-a-19_1422525497076

Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?

All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.

I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.

2528769B00000578-2930638-image-a-19_1422525497076-art

(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)

So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.

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52 Responses to “The planned vandalism of the Natural History Museum: a modest proposal”

  1. Senua Says:

    A fuss about nothing. The Diplodocus is only one of the many exhibits the Natural History museum has. Time for a change. Having visited the Natural History many times it will be nice to have something different in the main hall. It’s not like they’ve got rid of the whole Dinosaur exhibit. Theres more important things to get angry about other than a couple of models.


  2. Natee Himmapaan did a wonderful version, for Facebook, IIRC . I have asked him to post it here.

  3. Sam Hardman Says:

    I don’t really understand why this is so controversial. Except for when it’s on loan the diplodocus will still be in the museum so anyone can go and see it that wants to. While it is true that there is already a whale hall, there is also a dinosaur hall so I don’t really see why that is an argument against replacing the diplodocus. The point about extinction is that dnosaurs were wiped out by natural events while whales could be wiped out by human activity, that’s why it’s an important message. We can’t stop an asteroid hitting the earth but we can stop over exploitation.

    All that said, I love dinosaurs, and I love seeing the diplodocus skeleton. If having both in the main hall keeps everyone happy then I’m all for it!

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Senua and Sam — I’ve said what I have to say on this; if you don’t find it persuasive, then I guess I’m not going to persuade you.

  5. Joe Daniel Says:

    I live in the United States, in a state with no good natural history museum (and to my sorrow, it is almost as easy to go to London as it is for me to go to the Smithsonian or most of the East Coast museums, i.e. not bloody likely). So on my one chance to see the NHM, I looked forward to walking in and seeing the Diplodocus. I knew about that mount, it is world famous. I think there can be no doubt that it is an iconic specimen in the truest sense of the word and the NHM is intimately associated with it. I didn’t know about the whale hall and was blown away when I saw it.
    Is there room to mount both in the main hall? It appears to me that it might, but both are huge specimens. In your rendering, they understandably overlap in an unworkable fashion. Although it does look as if a small repositioning of the whale would make it work. If they would fit comfortably, I think the juxtaposition of the two would make for a great display and a powerful statement for visitors. There might be concerns about making the hall feel too crowded though, which I think would be justifiable if they were using the life model, but I don’t think it should be a big problem with the skeleton.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Joe, there is plenty of space. The hall is very, very tall. You could hang a stack of three of four whales above the Diplodocus without them colliding.

  7. paleoaerie Says:

    Wow. In that case, I completely agree with your proposal. That would be an incredible display. The only problem would be that tourists like me would spend so much time in the hall that we would cause traffic jams and miss other parts of the museum (as it stood, the museum was far too big for me to see all of it on the one, far too short day I could spend there).

  8. Kris Says:

    Having worked in museum IA, the reason for not having both is obvious. Yes, there is space for them if your goal is fitting in specimens for the public to see. However, I doubt that is the goal here. Nowadays, one of the major sources of museum income is renting out their main halls for expensive corporate functions. A big fat dinosaur taking up prime central floorspace severely limits the use of this hall for that purpose, whereas a whale hanging overhead maintains the museum feel while leaving the entire floor open to be filled with tables and chairs for an event. Dippy is a waste of space money-wise: particularly for an admission-free museum like the NHM, as public funding gets ever tighter the need to adapt the institution to suit the needs of those who do have money will become ever greater.

  9. Mike Taylor Says:

    Huh! In an offline chat, I suggested to a friend: “More cynical interpretation: they want more space for lucrative corporate banquets under the whale. No space for specimens, we have punters to pack in!”

    I didn’t imagine it could be true.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    I had been thinking the same thing. Honestly, in some ways this would be better, as we would finally have a good visual aid to that old chestnut that “blue whales were bigger than the biggest dinosaurs”.

  11. Frosted Flake Says:

    The juxtaposition seems worthwhile in a vacuum. The blue whale is near the theoretical size limit if I am not mistaken. And the Whale is surprisingly graceful, which can be shown on film, at a kiosk off to the side. The direct visual and visceral comparison of the two megafauna would likely enhance appreciation of both. I am trying to imagine the use the museum has in mind for the floor space and am failing handily. Perhaps I could ask.

    Would the museum Bigwigs’ email addresses be handy? Would this page be a good place to post it? How about the Next post, tomorrow? I suppose I could look it up, but the thought occurs that might not be the best address to use. The further thought occurs that several people asking might elicit a more thoughtful response.

    Thanks, Mike, for all you do.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Agreed, Frosted Flake! The more I think about the juxtaposition, the more I like it. With the possible exception of the main hall of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, it would be the most awesome room in any museum anywhere.

    I don’t know what the address would be to write to. I know that some museum staff sometimes read this blog: they might be able to point us to the best address to use?

    As for blue whales being “near the — if there’s one thing that palaeontology should have taught us, it’s to beware of theoretical size limit! Not so long ago, conventional wisdom was that Pteranodon was at the theoretical size limit for a flying animal: then we discovered Quetzalcoatlus! That said, yes, work has been done suggesting that lunge-feeding, which blue whales use, scales out at sizes not much bigger than the biggest whales we know of. (I can’t remember the reference — anyone?) But I don’t think that necessarily precludes larger animals feeding by other means, even if the work is correct.

    Finally (for now), Anonymous suggests “we would finally have a good visual aid to that old chestnut that “blue whales were bigger than the biggest dinosaurs”.” No, we’d only have a visual aid to the idea that one of the largest known specimens of the largest species of whale is bigger than middling specimen of a not-terribly-big sauropod. Remember that Amphicoelias could reach a size probably on the order of twice that of the NHM Diplodocus. That’s twice as big in linear dimension, so eight times the mass. Our sampling of big sauropods is pitiful compared with our sampling of whales.

  13. Matt Wedel Says:

    About the argument, “The NHM already has a dinosaur hall so moving Dippy is no great loss” – that would be more reassuring if the NHM dino hall wasn’t such a disaster.

    What really bothers me is not that the NHM is doing this, but their stated reasons for doing this. The idea that dinosaurs aren’t “relevant” is pure tosh. Things that are timeless are always greater than any chase after a temporary and always-moving ‘relevance’. As Chuck Klosterman said in one of his essays about rock music, “irrelevance” is the charge leveled by critics who can’t think of anything new to say about the iconography of a successful, long-lasting artist (like, say, AC/DC). If that is the actual reason behind this and not just a poorly-thought-out defense of a move that they knew would inspire at least some controversy, it suggests to me that the people in charge have lost touch with the primary goal of a natural history museum, which is not to attain “relevance” (whatever the hell that means in this context), but to put people in touch with natural history. I wrote more about that here (warning: language).

    Diplodocus is awesome, and so is Balaenoptera. I love big whales for pretty much the same reason that I love sauropods: they are so big and so alien to our everyday experience that they cannot help but shock us out of our complacency about the living world. So I’m actually not opposed to having the blue whale in the main hall, either by itself or with Diplodocus, although the latter course is clearly superior. What I am opposed to is museums shaking up their exhibits for no better reason than an ephemeral and ill-defined “relevance”. Someone who will toss Dippy for a more “relevant” whale probably does not understand (and certainly has not articulated) what makes either of them important.

  14. Warren B. Says:

    “About the argument, “The NHM already has a dinosaur hall so moving Dippy is no great loss” – that would be more reassuring if the NHM dino hall wasn’t such a disaster.”

    Hear hear! I finally managed to visit the NHM for the first time, a couple of years ago. I thought the dinosaur hall was dreadful – more like a funfair’s haunted house, or something. The second and only other time I visited, I didn’t bother going near it. Partly because I forgot it was a bank holiday and the main hall was crammed with the queue of families waiting to get in. Aside from a couple of other specimens scattered about, Dippy is the best view you’d get of a dinosaur in the whole museum!

  15. Mike Taylor Says:

    That’s a good point. When there’s a big queue for the dinosaur gallery (as there very often is), what other Mesozoic dinosaurs can people see in the museum at the moment? I can’t offhand think of a single one outside the gallery — apart from Diplodocus. So one of the consequences of the proposed whale-shift will be that many, many people visit the museum to see dinosaurs, and leave without seeing any at all.

  16. Matt Wedel Says:

    Also, this:

    Number of people who were inspired to go into science by seeing dinosaurs at the natural history museum when they were kids: countless.

    Number of people who were inspired to go into science by seeing whales at the natural history museum when they were kids: any?

    Whales are obviously much more relevant than dinosaurs. That’s why kids beg to go to museums to “see the whales!”, museum gift stores are packed to the gills – er, blowholes – with whale memorabilia, and Cetacean Park 4 is coming out this summer. Good thing it’s not dumb old dinosaurs that have been out of the public eye for so long, what with their complete lack of burrowing, parental care, social behavior, sexual selection, fuzzy integuments, living representatives, and general relevance. Good riddance, I say!

  17. Ben Says:

    I’m all for using relevance to put people in touch with natural history, but I’m similarly unimpressed by the reasons being offered for the switch. A whale is a powerful hook for educating visitors about the fragile condition of the world around us, but so is a dinosaur. NMNH just opened an entire interim exhibit making that point (this video sums it up nicely: http://naturalhistory.si.edu/fossil-hall/last-american-dinosaurs).

    In my day job as a museum educator, it can be challenging to communicate that past life isn’t dead, gone, and otherwise divorced from the modern world. It’s kind of frustrating when one of the world’s most visited natural history institutions blithely declares exactly that in their argument for retiring the Diplodocus.

    Putting both on display would be awesome. I feel like there’s a foundational principle of science communication in there somewhere – you can learn way more from something when you can compare it to something else.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Brian Switek has a very good take on the issues surrounding the NHM Diplodocus. Well worth a read to get a sense of the historic context.


  19. Having never been to the London Museum of Natural History, I cannot hope to voice as valid an opinion as one who has, but I believe that because “Dippy” is so iconic, it should remain in it’s current state in the hall.

  20. Sean Says:

    Yeah – my first thought was “why not both? There’s clearly more then enough room in there.”.

  21. Mike Taylor Says:

    Kodos to that!

    And Kang?

  22. Herman Diaz Says:

    @Mike Taylor

    Besides making sure you saw my reply to your reply ( http://chasmosaurs.blogspot.com/2015/02/mesozoic-miscellany-72.html#comment-form ), I want to apologize for the original misunderstanding. In retrospect, I could’ve worded my 1st comment better. In any case, I hope my reply cleared things up sufficiently.

    @Matt Wedel

    That’s why I’ve been saying at LITC & elsewhere that they should read Sampson’s “Dinosaur Odyssey”. I was especially annoyed by the dino-ignorant whale expert mentioned by Switek.

  23. Mike Taylor Says:

    No worries, Herman, I think your second comment clears things up just fine. (I’m still not sure I agree with it, but that’s another issue.)


  24. Jeez, this and the comment on your epipophyses post. I suck at English today (and commenting, for that matter). What I meant to said was kudos!


  25. Forget the thing about the epipophyses post. Thank God I didn’t typo in that comment! i would have looked like and idiotp.

  26. Craig Dylke Says:

    Love the title of this post. Very accurate.

    They also need to remember the title of the institution would explain the need for old “irrelevant” things…

    Museum of Natural HISTORY not Museum of Natural Contemporariness

    Ah to live in the age of bloody accountants and management majors running the world. My time in museums also had such morons calling the shots. I’m kinda glad I was politic-ed out of that world, when I see these sorts of business snergy BS policies dictating museums.

  27. ijreid Says:

    Brilliant idea. All they would need then, a skeleton of a dodo mounted as it was flying. Then they have it all, a long-extinct iconic dinosaur, an recently extinct dinosaur (bird if you want) that everybody recognizes, and a modern mammal that may go extinct soon.

  28. ijreid Says:

    Dumb me, dodo’s didn’t have wings. How about running. I will post a link to my amazing dodo running. That would be the ideal placement, things of three heights, sizes, and all icons of extinction/conservation.


  29. […] Mike’s amazing post, I say that the Natural History Museum of Britain should have both the iconic Diplodocus and a […]

  30. ijreid Says:

    Now on my most recent post, The Diplo of Brito.

  31. Frosted Flake Says:

    Matt Wedel makes excellent points in his essay.

    http://drvector.blogspot.com/2007/09/i-am-not-muse-d.html

    I see the error of my ways and apologize. While seeing a whale move on a bigscreen near the specimen MIGHT make it more intellectually approachable for some, I admit that the unfortunately ‘helpful’ would not be able to resist ‘helping’. Within minutes of discovering the hour long silent loop of whales moving, eating, sounding and diving, living, basically, the ‘helpful’ types would set to work enhancing the display with commentary, (OMG! NOISE!) and then theme music and then education, and then entertainment. Before the week was out it would be difficult to tell the original idea was to show how the whale moves.

    I had forgotten how much unhelpful help the World has to offer. Reminded, I am chastened. I withdraw the suggestion and sincerely hope it goes away. Preferably….. now.


  32. Allow me to get something off my chest before looking at the comments. As some of you know, this is a topic (and a dinosaur) close to my heart.

    I can understand how museum marketeers see a need for novelty (I would not necessarily call it innovation) from time to time. To me, this is comparable to football clubs changing their managers when the tide is rough: it doesn’t necessarily achieve anything, but it creates discussion, garners headlines and, when you’re lucky, works to change opinion. With some effort, I can even appreciate the necessity to clear floorspace for events if that is necessary to bankroll new exhibits which serve to further the museum’s mission.

    But what really p*sses me off is how museum management sees no problem in resorting to the most cynical opportunism in this case. Not so long ago (2011, IIRC) we were treated to a documentary series about the NHM in which Diplodocus cast (no ‘Dippy’ for me either, if possible – let’s go with William Holland’s abbreviation of ‘Dip’, which sounds appropriately more muscular) was given centre stage for the entire series. How can you exhibit such pride at having Dip in the main hall, extoll on both its educational importance and historical significance, and less than four years later claim that it is not ‘relevant’ any longer? There appears to have been an entire media campaign by the museum, in which sentences such as “just a copy” and, worse, “a fake” were rife. It just shows the most incredible cynicism and cluelessness.

    The next question is: what happens to it now? The NHM appears to be unclear on that: it might be displayed outside (in the open?) or go on tour. It might get restored, it might not be. This vagueness enhances the feeling that the museum doesn’t know what to do with it.

    That is nothing new. As I’ve said before, natural history museums always seem to be ill at ease with historicized displays and exhibits. Part of the reason is social: that curators (with a scientific background) are most interested in current science, and secondly in the museum’s educational mission. Historical interest and relevance often comes a distant third. Another is, I think, that historicized collections often are the result of a lack of funding, or a scientific standstill, with which no museum seeking ‘relevance’ likes to be associated.*

    But by being so oblique about its fate, and not paying attention to its historical and cultural significance – any longer – the NHM implicitly but effectively declares it worthless. By displaying it outside it would show marked lack of originality since both in Frankfurt and Pittsburgh there’s a model of Diplodocus outside the museum. By sending it on tour, the museum denies that Dip is primarily significant because of its role as part of the NHM’s own (rich) history. I should say at this point that the NHM has never been that fond of the specimen: at its christening in 1905, director Ray Lankester already emphasized how the donation was not really necessary since the museum already had lots of British dinosaurs. But the public thought otherwise, which only seems to have increase resentment towards Dip. To many within the museum, it rested uncomfortably on the treshold of the scientific and the vulgar – interesting as an object of study, but too close to Hydrarchos harlani to be entirely reassuring.**

    One cannot escape the feeling that Dixon and the NHM want Dip to just go away – it doesn’t serve the agenda of the week and is therefore useless. And that is something that should alarm any scientist and historian of science. Mike’s proposal makes sense in a lot of ways: educational, marketing-wise, scientifically and historically. But by emphasizing that they’re going through with their plans no matter what, I’m afraid we’ve entered a political debate in which arguments are no use.

    *Examples are the Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée in Paris, the bird room at the Bamberg Natural History Museum, or Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

    ** For the unitiated: see http://extinctmonsters.net/2013/10/16/the-chimeric-missourium-and-hydrarchos/


  33. Allow me to add one further footnote-cum-question in the form of an anecdote to my previous comment.

    My then-girlfriend (now-wife) once did an internship in a Dutch university museum, to catalogue their biological collection. One of the problems was that they’d lost (yes, lost) the 19-meter skeleton of a gray whale. She eventually recuperated it from some basement, after which the university decided to hang it, NHM-style from the ceiling in their new science faculty building.

    The problem was, however, that the skeleton weighed about twelve tons (if memory serves), which the building’s ceiling was not prepared for. It’s not just the weight, it is also the shifting of the construction’s stress points. The proposed NHM whale would weigh at least eighteen. And while monumental Victorian buildings are sometimes ridiculously over-engineered, this is not something you just hang from the ceiling.

    The NHM is also a listed building: you can’t even hammer a nail into a wall without approval. So I’m quite interested to see how they’re going to solve that puzzle; I haven’t heard anything about it sofar.


  34. I wouldn’t mind the Diplodocus move if they made sure they moved him to the Dinosaur gallery. That is, if the Dinosaur gallery was newly revamped with up to date restorations. How about throwing out the animatronics and outdated panels of text that a 5 year old would find condescending, and replace them with the dinosaur skeletons (which should also be updated, e.g. Triceratops). The NHM has some really good stuff, the Scolosaurus type specimen, the Mantellisaurus type specimen and recently the only Stegosaurus outside the USA. And another thing, at the moment the Scolosaurus is labelled Euoplocephalus (I think) and the Mantellisaurus as Iguanodon. I know Matt Wedel isn’t that keen on Computer displays, but instead have non-interactive screens with basic information about the dinosaurs, in the same way the museum today has plastic boards. That would mean whenever Greg Paul changes his mind about whether something is a genus or not, or more of Deinocheirus is discovered (both of which the museum has failed to report as they happened after the dino hall was last updated), the computers could have updated information about the animals displayed there. And in this idealistic hall, Dippy would be a central piece, but until then a comparison exhibit looks like the best bet.

  35. Mike Taylor Says:

    I don’t think moving the Diplodocus into the dinosaur gallery is an option. It’s a tiny gallery, and to fit a decent-sized sauropod in you’d have to remove literally half of what ‘s present there.

    (Needless to say, I agree that they should dump all the screens and animatronics — and most of all, the heinous display of dinosaur-themed toys — and use the space for more specimens. But that’s an argument for another day.)


  36. It would be interesting if they were to restore the old Gallery of Reptiles (today’s Creepy Crawlies abomination)* to its former glory, Diplodocus and Iguanodon included. That would be a great homage to the museum’s history.

    * I say that as someone greatly interested in insects.


  37. […] This post was prepared ahead of Mike Taylor’s post over on SV-POW on the same subject, in which he actually advocates having both skeletons together, a suggestion […]


  38. Removing Dippy from the NHM’s main hall would be like removing Sue from the Field Museum’s main hall. Everybody would miss it, and as many have already commented, where else is it going to go? I actually think you COULD put it in the Dinosaur Hall, assuming you renovated the Dinosaur Hall wholesale–close it down for five years like the Smithsonian is doing and MAKE IT BETTER.

    I was there in 2009 (?) for SVP in Bristol and I was pretty horrified at the Dinosaur Hall. Seriously, we have a better dinosaur exhibit here in Alaska, at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks (and even IT was recently renovated).

  39. Name required Says:

    The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”

    the museum of natural history? really??

    and stop saying “dippy” for christ’s sake, it’s so moronic!

  40. Herman Diaz Says:

    @James Appleby/Mike Taylor/Ilja Nieuwland/Zachary Miller

    Forgive my ignorance, but what you guys said about the NHM’s Dinosaur Gallery (DG) reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to ask: Is it really THAT bad? I know that the current version 1st opened in the 90s & that aspects of it have since become outdated. However, similar things can be said about other famous dino exhibitions: The AMNH’s Halls of Dinosaurs come to mind 1st given their sprawling Triceratops & tail-draging Anatotitan, among other things; In fact, the YPM’s Great Hall has been outdated since the Dino Renaissance. Don’t get me wrong as I’m not trying to undermine said exhibitions. I’m just trying to understand why dino fans are seemingly so much harder on DG. While I’ve never seen it in person, what I have seen in the pics & videos of dino fans ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQZmXvAo5Qo&spfreload=10 ) doesn’t really look any better or worse than said exhibitions, just different. Besides, isn’t the most important part of any museum exhibition the overarching theme (in which case DG is still just as good as said exhibitions: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/science-facilities/cahr/projects-partnerships/museum-lives/database/index.php?request=browse&irn=1887&index=1892 )?

  41. Mike Taylor Says:

    Herman,

    The problem with the NHM dino gallery isn’t to do with outdated poses — I’m actually very tolerant of those, and I think they’re a legitimate part of our history. I like that the current AMNH ornithischian hall has a pair of adjacent hadrosaurs, one in modern pose and one in 1950s-style kangaroo pose.

    No, the NHM dino gallery has much more fundamental problems. First, it’s very cramped, so that with very few exceptions, each skeleton can only be seen from one angle. You can’t walk around any of them the way you can with the Diplodocus. Second, to get as many people as possible through the exhibit, they have a single mandated path that you have to follow, which means you pretty much have to go at the crowd’s speed. Third, far too much of the precious space is taken up by exhibits other than specimens — lots of educational panels (which would be easier to forgive if they were more accurate) and even complete junk like a little exhibition of dinosaur-themed toys and lunchboxes. Fourth, the whole thing is very badly lit — many specimens are too gloomily lit to see clearly, and photography is all but impossible. I assume someone thought that this was more “atmospheric”. But people come to a museum to see specimens!

    To be fair, there is some excuse for some of this. The museum building itself imposes some constraints on what can be done, and there needs to be some way to deal with the very high visitor numbers. It’s probably better for the gallery to be cramped, as it is, than to reduce the number of specimens. The mandated path is better than it might be, at least giving you some chance to see the good stuff first from the elevated walkway and then from the boustrophedonic ground-level path. On the other hand, I really can’t see any excuse for the lighting or the lunchboxes.

    I think the killer observation regarding the NHM dinosaur gallery is that no-one who’s seen it seems to come away impressed or enthusiastic. You can read plenty of criticisms of it all over the Web. You’ll find a few defences, but they are not of the “No, it’s awesome!” kind, but the “Well, it has to be that way because …” kind. (Pretty much like my third paragraph, in fact.)

    It’s hard for museum staff to comment openly, of course, and to appear over-critical of their own institution. But my reading between the lines is that quite a few of the people who work there would welcome a chance to tear that gallery down and start all over again. Or at the very least put some damned lights in. And get rid of the lunchboxes. Maybe the best approach would be to do what the AMNH did: have two separate dinosaur halls, one each for saurischians and ornithischians. Then the existing display specimens could be spread out so you can walk around them, and there might be room to bring out a few of the goodies not currently on display. But of course to do that they’d need to clear another gallery in the museum, and most of the rooms are spoken for. If there was an easy solution, no doubt they’d have taken it long ago.

  42. Anonymous Says:

    “Removing Dippy from the NHM’s main hall would be like removing Sue from the Field Museum’s main hall. Everybody would miss it, and as many have already commented, where else is it going to go?”

    Funny that you mentioned that, because we had a very similar situation with the Field’s Brachiosaurus. One of the only mounts of Brachiosaurus (as in B. altithorax, not Giraffatitan) in the world, set up in ~1992, and yet less than a decade later it gets kickee out of the museum to make way for a certain tyrannosaur.

  43. Mike Taylor Says:

    Indeed, the FMNH Brachiosaurus mount was the only one in the world at the time it was made (though PAST have sold some more since then). We briefly discussed the decision to throw the brachiosaur outside in favour of Sue previously, but I remain as mystified by it as ever.

  44. Mike Taylor Says:

    For example, one of the additional Brachiosaurus casts can now be found in the North American Museum of Ancient Life, as Matt discovered.


  45. Happy Darwin Day SV-POW!

  46. Herman Diaz Says:

    @Mike Taylor

    Many thanks for answering my question. I’ve seen bits of what you said elsewhere, but not altogether in the form of a long & well-organized explanation like your reply. In retrospect, it’d be easier to see the mounted skeletons w/better lighting. It’d also be better if the animatronic dinos were more like those used for “RoboSue” (which showed visitors what it might’ve been like to interact w/non-bird dinos in their natural habitat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxkAQb-TrQU&spfreload=10 ). Any idea whether the NHM will give the dino gallery a make-over &/or fix the problems you listed in the near future?

  47. Mike Taylor Says:

    Herman, I don’t know of any plans for the NHM dinosaur gallery, but I’m not associated with the museum except as a fan. Someone like Paul Barrett (dinosaur researcher at the NHM) would be much more likely to know if anything is in the offing.


  48. I’ve been to the Field Museum a few times now, both before and after Sue’s arrival. I kind of like having the Brachiosaurus outside–you can stand right underneath her and get some really beautiful photographs. I do wonder how it survives Chicago’s bipolar climate, though.

  49. Mike Taylor Says:

    The outdoor brachiosaur at Chicago is not the one that used to be indoors — that one was moved to O’Hare Airport. The outdoor one is a new copy made using more weather-resistant material. And, yes, it’s great! It just means that, once you’ve seen the outside of the museum, the inside is an anti-climax :-)

  50. Kana Says:

    I am sick to death of dead whales. On the West Coast of the U.S. every “natural history” museum has a whale skeleton, fiberglass cast, or concrete model. But the nearest dinosaur skeleton is almost 80 miles away. Guess which skeleton my kids want to see every vacation.


  51. […] Technical Editor Michael Randle argue it’s a good thing, while others like palaeontologist Mike Taylor disagree with the idea), but I will talk about another thing that has come up since then. One […]


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