By James Poskett
You don’t have to venture far out of central London to find your own Jurassic Park. In fact, the Victorians were over 100 years ahead of Hollywood. Today, in Crystal Palace Park you can come face-to-face with a nineteenth-century vision of the dinosaurs. On top of a small mound, complete with prehistoric foliage, sit two life-size Iguanodon, whilst in the murky depths of the lake you’ll need to be on the lookout for a family of Ichthyosaurus.
These sculptures are a lasting monument to the exhibitions of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Although small exhibitions existed before, it was the Great Exhibition of 1851 which really set the trend. Located in Hyde Park in London, this mammoth event attracted over six million visitors and included exhibits from both Britain and the Empire. Inside the gargantuan steel and glass structure, visitors could see the world’s biggest diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, before heading off to learn about the mechanics of industry. (The Victorian public with an apparent interest in steam engines found only today amongst railway anoraks).
In 1854, the Great Exhibition, then run by a commercial company, was looking to go one better. The newly revamped spectacle was relocated to Sydenham in south London to the grounds of what is now Crystal Palace Park.
As part of a meandering complex of outdoor exhibits, the Crystal Palace Company commissioned sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to build a set of life-size models of various extinct animals, including the dinosaurs. Hawkins was paired with comparative anatomist Richard Owen (the man who coined the term “dinosaur”, meaning “terrible lizard”). Today, you can see the fruits of their discussions and disagreements.
One particularly famous inaccuracy is the Iguanodon’s horn. Hawkins’ sculpture is of an animal with a large horn standing on all-fours, much like a reptilian rhinoceros. Today, we know that the horn was in fact a thumb spike and that the Iguanodon was much less chunky. However, not all inaccuracies were down to a lack of knowledge. In some cases Hawkins indulged in a bit of artistic licence. (And why not? The results are certainly a sight to behold). For instance, he added a great hump to the Megalosaurus, one that Owen and other natural historians disputed. In fact, at the time, the Curator of Natural History Specimens at the British Museum went as far as to describe the sculptures as “gross delusions” appealing to the “curiosity of the less informed”.
Perhaps to dampen some of the academic criticism, the Crystal Palace Company organised a stunt most PR companies would be envious of even today. On New Year’s Eve 1853, a group of prominent natural historians were invited to enjoy fine dining inside one of the Iguanodon sculptures. The only way to really do justice to this is to turn to the London Illustrated News with its iconic depiction of William Buckland and Richard Owen crammed in the back of an Iguanodon. You just can’t make this stuff up.
When you visit the dinosaurs today, you might not be able to eat your packed lunch inside an Iguanodon, but do take the time to consider their strange place in the history of science. On the one hand the product of a commercial venture (think a nineteenth-century version of Thorpe Park), yet on the other hand a serious educational tool (hence the academic criticism). All this is encapsulated in that concept which parents fear the most: the gift shop. Yes, in 1854, you could buy your very own miniature Megalosaurus. Maybe to learn from, but more likely to run around the kitchen screeching “ROAR!”