Imagine: It’s 1854. The concept of evolution won’t be introduced for another five years or so. The word dinosaur is only about a decade old. There are no David Attenborough documentaries that teach you about extinct animals.
Now imagine yourself as a Victorian resident of London, walking through Crystal Palace Park in the southeastern part of the city. There you come across dozens of 3D dinosaurs and ancient mammals that you would never have imagined, made of clay, bricks and other available building materials. Arranged in small groups, they peek out from behind trees and bushes, some soaring above their human visitors for an afternoon stroll.
Except you don’t have to fantasize too hard, because those statues are still there, some 170 years later. They are a little worse for wear and are no longer scientifically accurate. But they delight visitors nonetheless. And this month, thanks to conservators, scientists, and a group called Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, the Paleolithic picnic party has grown a bit, with the addition of a new statue—well, a recreation of an old statue—to replace one that disappeared in the 1960s.
A “revolutionary” march through time, for its time
The statues, built by 19th-century artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, are part of a reconstructed geological march through time, which began 260 million years ago. It was the first of its kind, which impressed the public at the time.
“It was educational for the Victorians,” said Adrian Lister, a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “It was revolutionary.”
The sculptures by Mr. Hawkins, who was one of the most famous sculptors in natural history at the time, were meant to educate and entertain visitors near the Crystal Palace, an exhibition space built for the London Great Exhibition of 1851. After the exhibition, this palace moved to the area which he called his name today. (The statues have outlived the actual palace, which burned down in 1936.)
Eleanor Michel, an evolutionary biologist and chair of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, said the gnomes spread science, bringing the idea of extinction and changing environments to ordinary people, not just the upper classes. Ms Michelle, who lives nearby, said: “This was the birthplace of ‘edutainment’ on a grand scale.
The statues do not reflect extinct animals based on what we know today. Michelle said that within decades of its construction it had become obsolete due to new scientific discoveries.
Accuracy is not the point, Michelle said. “Science is moving and science is improving itself,” she said.
“They are not built to last long.”
Of the original 38 statues, 30 survive, each fragment spanning nearly 170 years.
The statues were made from whatever materials were available at the time and, as a result, were plagued with problems such as rusting iron. While they have been preserved over the years, some appear to have survived, and at least one of them is missing its head.
“They are not built to last for long,” said Simon Boteau of Historic England, an organization that advises the government on England’s heritage. “We have a big problem maintaining it.”
What is important to preserve, Mr Bhutto said, is the original feel of how revolutionary these statues were in the 19th century.
He added, “It was new, it was new, it was cutting edge.” “This is what we want to capture.”
“She has a silly face.”
No one quite knows what happened to the original Palaeotherium magnum, which disappeared from the park in the 1960s. A herbivore loosely associated with horses, the statue looked like a horse with a short snout.
Seven other statues were also lost. Michelle said the circumstances surrounding most of the disappearances were “great mysteries”.
Bob Nichols, an artist who focuses on prehistoric animals, has suggested returning Palaeotherium magnums to the park. Then the Friends of Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs secured the funding that helped make the recreated Palaeotherium magnum a reality. The new statue was erected in the park in early July.
To recreate what Mr. Hawkins imagined the herbivore might look like, Mr. Nichols turned to the few photographs available to him from the 1950s and 1960s.
The new statue took about six weeks to build, is hollow on the inside and made of fiberglass, a durable material. He said he was happy with how that turned out: “His face is ridiculous.”
The new sculpture draws attention to the site’s importance in the history of science“,” said Mr. Lister, a paleobiologist.
About half a million people visit the statues annually, according to Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. And they continue to elicit awe, with parents taking pictures of their children in front of them and posing next to the large statues.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Jenny Steele, a local who strolls the park several times a week, was on her way to admire the newest addition. “It’s much larger than life,” she said.
A little further on the walk was Ian Baxter, who has lived in the area for 50 years, sitting on a rock near the statues with his dog, Rory. He said that as a teenager, he used to climb hollow structures. Today, they are seen from the other side. He said, “I love dinosaurs.” “Of course I do.”
Gabriel Birch, a local resident, said he visits the park at least once a month.
“We came here for the dinosaurs,” he said. “My three-year-old thinks they are real.”