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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
(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.