After a tour around the country to eight cities, Dippy the dinosaur has returned to its original home in the Natural History Museum. Not just to its home in the museum, but also in the very room where the skeleton cast was first shown when it arrived in 1905.
Dippy is a 150-million year old composite Diplodocus skeleton discovered in 1898 and bought by the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. He wanted more people to be able to see the dinosaur than would be possible if it were in a single museum, so he commissioned a number of plaster casts and donated them to museums around the world.
And the Natural History Museum’s Dippy is one of those casts.
Having been unveiled on 12th May 1905 in the reptile gallery, it moved into the great entrance hall in 1979, replacing an elephant that had been there since 1907.
Now, museums change their displays, not as often as a supermarket, but they do change, and a few years ago it was decided that the entrance hall would be better showing only authentic animal bones and fossils, and sorry Dippy, but you’re just a plaster cast.
That wasn’t uncontroversial. There were petitions and protests, but the move took place, and then something unusual and wonderful happened. Dippy went on tour.
Museums are regularly lending objects out to other museums for big exhibitions, but to send just one object out on a tour, and not just to museums is almost unprecedented. But the Natural History Museum is a custodian of a national collection, so why not let the nation see the collection?
Apart from upholding Andrew Carnegie’s original desire, that more people should be able to see wonderful things, the tour also improved the museum’s scientific understanding of a Diplodocus skeleton.
That’s because museums don’t dismantle their specimens all that often, and yet on tour, they were assembling and disassembling Dippy several times, giving the museum curators a fairly rare chance to study the dinosaur in a way that’s not usually possible. Lorraine Cornish – Head of Conservation – Natural History Museum explained to me that when the skeleton cast was first dismantled, it was sent to a lab in Canada to be restored and improved support structures added.
It’s also now in 86 discrete pieces, so takes around 4-5 days to put it all back together again.
The dinosaur had been displayed with a pole to hold up the tail and wires to hold up the head. More modern materials allowed thinner but stronger supports to be slid inside the bones, and now the dinosaur is almost free-standing – no supports to the tail or head at all.
The new way of showing off Dippy makes it seem bigger than it used to be, probably because the support mechanisms constrained its appearance. Now when you stand behind Dippy you can really imagine that ever so long tail swishing back and forth as it walked around. And would probably send you flying into a hospital if it hit you.
Back in the UK, Dippy toured the UK, visiting 8 cities and was seen by over 2 million visitors, with related events and as Lorraine Cornish described it, a “dippy effect” took place sparking excitement and lots of related events in the towns. The tour was also a boon for the regions, as the visitors generated around £36 million in revenue for those venues.
Now back in London, Dippy’s not in the main hall, but back in the original hall where it was shown in 1905. That also makes the skeleton seem grander, as before it was an island in a sea of fast-moving people looking to get somewhere else. Now, it’s a destination.
It — Dippy is always an “it” as its gender is unknown — will be on display until the end of this year before going on a 3-year loan to another venue, in a location to be decided (venues can apply here)