When Diplodocus Came to Kelvingrove

For a few all-too-short months, the Natural History Museum’s Diplodocus carnegii was hosted by Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery. Today, it’s on its way to Newcastle to see the tiddlypeeps of Northern England. There wasn’t a ceremony or send off: just a team quietly packing the bits away in boxes after the museum closed. I’d meant to have a post up long before this, but I kept agonising over it, because that Diplodocus means a great deal to me.

I went up on the opening day, not knowing what to expect. The last dinosaur-related event I attended at Kelvingrove was Hatching the Past: Dinosaur Eggs & Babies, all the way back in 2015. I was expecting Dippy to be placed in the same general vicinity as that exhibition, as well as the possibility of payed entry. But when I passed through the glass doors of the riverside entrance, I saw the RBS Gallery was closed. Initially horrified that I might somehow have the date wrong – or, worse, that something happened to Dippy on the journey across the sea from the Ulster Museum – I heard the organ playing a familiar tune

So I scrambled up the stairs like the world’s beardiest 8-year-old, and beheld something I never thought I’d see in Scotland.

It was as spiritual an experience as I thought it would be. Think about the journey which brought this shape into Kelvingrove’s Central Hall. Somewhere in the vast eons of the past, some 157-145 million years ago, a tremendous form of life walked a very different Earth, in what are now the Great Plains of North America. Great herds of Diplodocus roamed the landscape: even before fully grown, its body was larger than the biggest elephant’s; its neck, longer than the tallest giraffe’s, waved side to side in search of prehistoric ferns; its tail, stretching further than the entire length of the largest python, floated lightly above the ground like a great pennon in the wind. Some of these creatures’ remains fell in just the correct circumstances to be preserved as fossils, and over the eons, the flesh & bone was replaced with stone and mineral, forming a perfect reproduction of the animal’s skeleton. Those fossils, themselves casts of the original bones, lay ensconced in rock for hundreds of millions of years, each millennium adding layers and layers above their grave. Then, in the dusk of the 19th Century, some intrepid palaeo-prospectors came upon their ancient tomb, & excavated the fossils. The fossils then became the subjects of a cast themselves, leading to a multitude of copies sent around the world, and beginning an entirely new way of conceptualising prehistoric life in the public consciousness.

As a boy, I simply looked in wonder at the scale of Dippy, marvelling that something so large actually lived, walked, breathed on this planet. As an adult (at least in years), I could see the engineering of the piece – the way the bones interacted with one another to form the natural suspension bridge; the distinction between the forefeet and hindfeet; the famous double chevrons in the tail from which the creature’s name was derived.

Dippy isn’t quite the biggest dinosaur – several have been discovered since which repositioned Diplodocus into almost medium-sized territory – nor is it even the biggest mounted skeleton, but it managed to command the vast space of Kelvingrove all the same. If it stretched its neck up a bit, it could have peered into the second floor exhibits, or booped the organ keys with its nose: were it mounted in a bipedal stance, it probably could’ve peeked out the third floor windows.

Dotted around Dippy were some displays with various facts and figures about Dippy, placed at various points to look upon the skeleton from many different angles. It was a clever way of encouraging visitors to explore the hall from lots of perspectives. It also helped orient visitors to the refreshments, where canny museum staff capitalised on the famous guests with special biscuits.

I made return trips after the first day, including yesterday: every visit was well-attended by young and old, local and tourist, group and solo. For every small child running up and pointing excitedly, there was a senior snapping away with a camera, and families and tourist groups dodging each other as they tried to get a good shot of the magnificent skeleton.

One big missed opportunity, I felt, was that there wasn’t an accompanying exhibition for Dippy. The story of Dippy deserved a proper walk-around like previous exhibitions I attended, with lighting, displays, videos, multimedia, a whole experience. It could incorporate the natural history of Diplodocus, the history of the species’ discovery, a section on Andrew Carnegie, and dinosaurs in popular culture. Since we’re in Scotland, it could even be customised to include the Scottish dimension: the shared geology of Jurassic Scotland and the American Plains, Scotland’s own dinosaurs on Skye, the contribution of Scots to palaeontology (Mahala Andrews, Robert Broom, Mary Calder, Ethel Currie, Hugh Falconer, Maria Gordon, Eliza Gordon-Cumming, Archie Lamont, Hugh Miller, William Swinton, Stan Wood, and many more), and so forth.

Still, there was a display cabinet featuring bits and pieces of Carnegie history. There was a scale model of Diplodocus, accompanied by models from Safari’s Carnegie Collection from 1988 and 2008 to show the changing views on reconstruction – alas, they didn’t have Invicta’s iconic 1974 model, Battat’s spectacular 1995 model, or the more up-to-date Wild Safari 2017 model (and I’m not lending the museum mine!). There were also photographs of heads of state accompanying a map pointing out the museums which got their own Dippys, a copy of the infamous newspaper cutting which inspired Carnegie, and a reproduction of Dippy’s skull on loan from Dunfermline. Beside the cabinet was a display with a short narrated slideshow covering the history of Dippy. It was a much-needed educational point in the absence of a full exhibition.

Dippy also found itself the focus of a few striking images, from the climate change protest movement staging a “die-in” to a cheeky April Fool’s homage to one of Glasgow’s most famous statues. It shows the value of Dippy beyond education and spectacle – it’s a symbol that can mean anything and everything to people depending on what they want it to mean. I hope Newcastle gives Dippy the welcome it deserves, and that the NHM continues to use Dippy as a focal point for communities across the isles.

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