Long before dinosaurs were your Natural History Museum’s biggest attraction, a collection of charmingly inaccurate sculptures in a South London park were once considered the absolute authority on pre-historic reptiles. As the study of dinosaurs progressed and the mistakes became more obvious, they turned into a national embarrassment for the scientific community and yet today they are “Grade I Listed Buildings”; holding the same status as St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace. This is their story…
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, unveiled in 1854, before the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. At at time when the theory of evolution was treated as a blasphemous joke, it was largely left to palaeontologists to fit dinosaur bones together like giant incomplete jigsaws. The rush to finish a specimen and name it before a rival did meant that there were many mistakes and inaccuracies. For example, when English palaeontologist Gideon Mantell discovered the Iguanadon, he placed the thumb spike of on the end of its nose, going unchallenged for many years until later skeletons revealed his mistake.
Scientists and academics resorted to many underhand tactics to be recognised for their work and one of the main players in the ‘game of bones’ was Richard Owen; a celebrity of Victorian society who coined the term ‘dinosaur’ in 1842 and identified many new species. But he also took credit for other peoples‘ work and was described as a villainous man by more than a few of his peers.
In 1851, Owen suggested to his acquaintance Prince Albert that a display of sculptures depicting the first-known dinosaurs would make an excellent addition to the attraction at Crystal Palace in London, which had originally been built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to create the models and on the eve of their reveal, he hosted a lavish eight-course dinner party attended by scientists, investors and other celebrities, who were seated inside a giant mould of an Iguanodon. As the night progressed, the party grew more raucous according to newspaper reports, continuing long after midnight with guests consuming vast amounts of alcohol. Hawkins reported that “The roaring chorus was so fierce and enthusiastic as almost to lead to the belief that the herd of Iguanodons were bellowing“.
Notably absent was the scientist who had discovered the Iguanodon, Gideon Mantell, for he had died the previous year. Guest of honour Richard Owen conducted a toast for Mantell before claiming the discovery of the Iguanadon for his own.
The finished sculptures were unveiled in 1854 and for nearly fifty years afterward, over a million people per year went to see them. The inaccurate works inspired writers and artists, including Charles Dickens, who mentions the megalosaur in his novel ‘Bleak House‘, making the first reference to dinosaurs in a popular work.
As discoveries progressed in palaeontology and scientists gained greater understanding of how dinosaurs moved and lived, the sculptures began to look dated, almost abstract and very quickly became the source of ridicule. The installation that had represented the most up-to-date knowledge was now an embarrassment. Renowned palaeontologist Othniel Charles Marsh scorned the sculptures and everybody associated with them, stating that the extinct creatures had been done “a great injustice”. Tourism to the site dropped dramatically and the sculptures fell into disrepair before a fire destroyed much of Crystal Palace in 1936. Over time, they were obscured by foliage and as the Second World War occupied the attention of London, the park was largely forgotten until 1952 when a restoration of both sculptures and park was carried out.
Of course, the English tend to embrace eccentricity and after the models had been fully restored, enough time had passed to make them a curiosity rather than an outdated eyesore.
They were classed as Grade II listed buildings in 1973 and in 2002, the display was fully restored and upgraded to Grade I in 2007. They have a registered charity dedicated to their long-term preservation which proudly claims that the site now attracts as many visitors per year as it did when the dinosaurs first raised their heads… metaphorically, of course.