Several generations of schoolchildren have been introduced to natural history by Dippy the Dinosaur at the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. This diplodocus skeleton cast arrived at the museum in 1905, but was erected in the Hintze Hall near the entrance in 1979 and has been there ever since. I have seen it more times than I care to remember and, like most folk, I suspect, thought little more about it until I heard that it was going to be replaced. Its replacement is the real skeleton of a blue whale, which was acquired by the museum shortly after it opened in 1881, though it didn’t go on show – in the mammals gallery – until 1935. We went to see it, newly installed in the Hintze Hall, earlier this week.
The Natural History Museum is one of the treasures of London, along with those other, free, museums next door, the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert. Alfred Waterhouse’s cathedral to natural science and enquiry is a magnificent building, with its high priest, Charles Darwin, seated on the dais at the far end of the Hintze Hall. I love visiting, even if it is only to discover yet more sculpted creatures in its walls, ceiling and windows. The detail in the bricks, tiles and plasterwork is phenomenal.
But we were there to see Dippy’s replacement. The blue whale skeleton, is suspended in a diving pose from the museum ceiling. It opens up the space within the Hall in a way that the earthbound Dippy couldn’t and the eye is drawn to the amazing ceiling and the upper galleries. My sister and neice confessed that they had never been above the ground floor before, despite visiting several times and they are not, I suspect, unusual. ‘Hope’, for that is the name given to the whale, might change all that.
I had never seen so many people on the third floor ‘bridge’ above the entrance hall and, truth to tell, I had never been there myself. It gives a magnificent view of the skeleton, but also affords an opportunity to see the detail on the exquisite ceiling panels, all hand painted, which are explained on plinths at each side of the ‘bridge’. There you can also find Joseph Banks and Alfred Russell Wallace and see the little apes which climb the brick columns close up.
In The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt the Natural History Museum is the setting for the opening scene when the protagonist discovers a boy living, secretly, in the Museum then under construction, finding all the hideaways and hidden places in which to evade the janitors and workmen. The installation of the blue whale skeleton definitely brings some previously hidden away spaces back into public use.
And what of Dippy? Well, from 2018 the beloved dinosaur is going on a tour of the United Kingdom. You can find out where on the Dippy on Tour site. And if you want to see the work behind swapping Dippy for the whale there’s a Horizon documentary, narrated by David Attenborough on the BBC site here.