Sunday, 23 January 2011

From the archives: urban dinosaurs

South-east London famously has the world's first dinosaur park. This Victorian theme park remains a place of education and delight - now easier than ever to access, thanks to the East London Line extension.

When the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to its new site, the surrounding park was also intended as a place of entertainment and education. Nowhere were those two aims better combined than in the dinosaur park (the first in the world). Entertaining as it might be to wander around scenic lakes with prehistoric animals at every turn, the visitor was also expected to learn.

The creator of this section was none other than Professor Richard Owen, the man who invented the word 'dinosaur'. Sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse-Hawkins, the creatures were placed to create a timeline illustrating the new and shocking idea that such animals had existed millions of years ago. (This was all happening in 1854, five years before Darwin's Origin of the Species was published).

The park's prehistoric inhabitants haven't always had a happy time. The display was never completed because money ran out - otherwise we might have had a mammoth and a dodo there as well - and by the late twentieth century had fallen badly into disrepair. However, recent restoration has returned the models to their full Victorian glory, complete with original colours, and resisted the temptation to correct them in light of later discoveries. Thus the ichthyosaurus is shown coming onto land (it couldn't), missing its dorsal fin, and with an incorrectly-shaped tail.

The megatherium (which should be dark brown) looks as if it's playing hide and seek. Its tree is the Victorian original; in fact, it went on to grow so much that it broke the animal's arm off. No risk of that happening again: the tree is now dead.

Another attempt to mingle model and reality was the megaloceros, which originally incorporated genuine fossilised antlers. However, since fossils are stone and the models are concrete on hollow iron frames, the antlers proved too heavy and were replaced with replicas.

The final educational feature for the Victorian visitor was the illustration of geological strata. A cliff complete with coal measures, ironstone and fault lines combined lessons in geology and in the raw materials of industry. An afternoon in the park had become an improving experience!

1 comment:

Dani Middleton said...

My only attempt to Crystal Palace was few years ago and I don't know why I just couldn't find anything.
The Post made me want to go back....