Fossils, Museums, & History: Dippy the Diplodocus

historical-picture-diplodocus-tail-up-054966Dippy’s Story: Lessons & Questions

As many of you are probably aware, the Natural History Museum London  announced this week that a blue whale skeleton will move into the main hall in 2017, replacing the Diplodocus dinosaur that has occupied the main hall since 1979. This announcement has sparked a heated conversation on the interwebs, where a twitter account @SaveDippy was launched, and hashtags such as #dippygate and #savedippy popped up almost immediately. blue-whale-773

The NHM London has done a great job managing the conversation that has ensued. They are engaging with all sides of the debate, in fact they put together a storify on the issue. I don’t wish to enter that conversation and take sides, but instead I’d like to draw attention to some of the interesting issues Dippy’s story brings up from a historical and philosophical standpoint. I think that the Dippy story reveals tensions of larger issues surrounding museums’ purposes, and changing roles of objects in culture. Below are the main lessons and questions I think #dippygate has raised.

1) Museums Serve a Variety of Purposes: Who & what are the objects (including fossils) for?

Dippy Unveiled: 1905

Dippy Unveiled: 1905

The Dippy problem cannot be resolved without asking what are museums for, and who are they for? Though the roles and purpose of museums has been greatly debated (and varies from museum to museum), it can be argued that museums serve many functions simultaneously. This is reflected in the mission statements on the NHM London’s website, which argue that “The Museum is a world-class visitor attraction and leading science research centre” (emphasis added). In the case of the blue whale, the NHM is trying to educate the public on the sorts of science currently being conducted, research they see as relevant to modern issues of conservation.

This hints at the important point that in addition to serving a variety of purposes, Museums also have a variety of goals. The NHM London states that they want to “challenge the way people think about the natural world- its past, present and future” (emphasis added). They claim to focus on three core themes: Origins and evolution (past);  Diversity of life (present): Sustainable futures (future). They see the last two as having “never been more important or more urgent.” And I agree. “Species and ecosystems are being destroyed faster than we can document them or understand their significance. The very resources on which modern society relies are under threat.” Thus, the blue whale is meant to increase awareness among the public about species diversity, the problems the world is facing today, and humans’ role in how the world is changing moving forward. Museum director Sir Michael Dixon argues that “as the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth, the story of the blue whale reminds us of the scale of our responsibility to the planet.” Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 11.14.15 AM

I think that Dippy’s story illuminates the tensions that sometimes arise when an institution serves a variety of goals. The public should keep in mind that while the museum is certainly for their enjoyment and entertainment, it is also a hub of ongoing scientific (and historical!) research, and in turn researchers must recognize that museum visitors are looking for certain things– such as a sense of awe and wonder, in their visit.

As the NHM London’s relationship with the science and the public is continually negotiated, it might occasionally help to ground arguments in history, asking questions such as what did the founding fathers have in mind, and are those visions still relevant or not, and why? In the case of the Natural History Museum London, I don’t particularly know the history, what the founding fathers wanted out of this place, though I know that it was a contentious issue. For example, Thomas Huxley apparently felt that museums should solely be research institutions. Historical considerations are important to keep in mind.

2) Dippy is Not Real; What Makes an Object “Real” and Valuable?

diplodocus_skeleton Through the discussion of Dippy’s replacement, many people have discovered that Dippy is, in fact, a plaster cast . The fact that Dippy is not actually a fossil raises interesting issues of “authenticity.” This was discussed by Museum Director Sir Michael Dixon when he defensively argued that “a lot of people do not realise that it is not actually a real dinosaur, whereas the whale will be the real thing, which is important.” He argued that the museum is now “focusing on the real and authentic. Much loved as Dippy is, he’s a plaster cast replica of a diplodocus, and one of a number around the world.” This quote was quite shocking to me, because it seems to discredit Dippy because he is not “the real thing.” While I agree that seeing original fossils is pretty great, I think this again may reflect a misunderstanding of the process of science and the purpose of museums. It seems to me that fossils are delicate things, they are irreplaceable and must be protected used in only certain ways. Casts, on the other hand, are incredibly valuable because they allow more scientists to study a particular fossil, and allow more people to become familiar with that specimen. Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 11.14.32 AM

In asking what makes an object “real” or valuable” the question instantly becomes real compared to what? And valuable to whom, for what purpose? Does the fact that Dippy is many of a number of casts around the world mean that he is less impressive? Does it mean that as museum goers, he teaches us less about science? As stated above, casts of fossils are still extremely valuable in the scientific process, and I would caution people that are upset to find that Dippy isn’t “real” to consider this issue in light of these sorts of questions. Historian Lydia Pyne provides some insight into the issue of casts in paleoanthropology in her Real Casts, Fake Fossils blog post.

3) Dippy has Changed over Time; How are Objects Not Static Entities?

dippy-tail-250-125741-1 Not only have conceptions and beliefs about Dippy changed over time, as is the case with any object or fossil– but actually the construction of Dippy; the placement of his vertebrae and more, has changed since 1979. Dippy has been continually modified to fit new understandings in science, for example his heard and neck were raised in the 1960s, due to new research on how the Diplodocus may have moved and held itself. Additionally, the tail was repositioned in 1993 to curve above visitors’ heads rather than appeared to drag on the ground.

This is a great example of the interplay between scientific research and museums, as exhibits and objects must be adjusted to fit changing understandings of the past. Some historians have written “biographies of objects” which follow the life of an object as it changes over time. Those historians, myself included, would argue that this “displacement” of Dippy is just a new chapter in an interesting story of an object that has help important cultural value and will be forever remembered in the hearts of those who have had the pleasure to visit the NHM London.


PSM_V82_D620_Othniel_Charles_MarshThere are numerous other interesting intersections between science, culture, and education that Dippy’s story raises. One example, as pointed out by @reevesnicky, is that in the process of publicizing the blue whale display, the NHM London has taken this opportunity to publicize the hall’s new name. The hall was named Hintze Hall in 2014 after Sir Michael Hintze donated a large sum of money to the museum. Nicky Reeves and others point out how interesting it is that this rebranding of the hall has been projected back in time, telling the “history of Hintze Hall” and ignoring the recency of this name.

The list of issues that Dippy raisies is potentially endless. But for now, I’ll leave it wondering what Othniel C Marsh–the describer and namer of Diplodicus in 1878, over 3,500 miles from the NHM London–would have said about all this. I’d also love to know what you all think? Are you sad to see Dippy go? Do you think the whole thing is crazy? Feel free to comment below!

Further reading:

When Diplodocus Invaded Europe,” a nice history of Diplodocus and Andrew Carnegie in the early 20th century

Nieuwland, Ilja. “The colossal stranger. Andrew Carnegie and Diplodocus intrude European Culture, 1904–1912.” Endeavour 34, no. 2 (2010): 61-68.

2 thoughts on “Fossils, Museums, & History: Dippy the Diplodocus

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  2. I think Dippy’s removal also points to the need to focus on the great biodiversity of life today. To me, it seems like using a blue whale a good way to show that there are large (and bizarre) creatures alive today! (I recently blogged my opinion on this too.) –Catherine

    Liked by 1 person

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