Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Dinosaurs

It would seem that our knowledge of prehistoric creatures is evolving just as much as they themselves evolved. And that, what we are certain of today, is likely to be questioned, and probably dismissed by future generations. So, while the unique collection of dinosaurs, and later species which inhabit the lower reaches of Crystal Palace Park, may be hopelessly inaccurate, they are of huge importance and value both historically, and to the local community and the countless visitors, young and old, from elsewhere. Created in the mid 1850s by sculptor, and technical artist, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, they were the first ever attempt to create life-size, three dimensional representations of creatures which, were only classified as a distinct group a decade earlier, and which, half a century earlier, nobody even knew existed. While they were meant to thrill and entertain, they also served an educational purpose, being laid out in chronological order, from the amphibian, frog like Labyrinthodon in the triassic zone, via the reptilian Megalosaurus, Iguanadon, and Hylaeosaurus, to the mammalian, tapir like, Palaeotherium, Irish elk, Megaloceros, and the Megatherium, or Ground Sloth. In addition geological structures were created to show the various strata that make up the different periods in which the creatures lived.
Commissioned as one of the many attractions in the park surrounding Paxton's great palace, the dinosaurs are now among the very few remnants of the great Victorian vision, effectively the world's first theme park, which combined science, commerce, entertainment  and culture on this site in South London.
Now over 150 years old, and despite restoration less than twenty years ago, the sculptures desperately need help again. The challenge was taken up by two proactive locals, Dr. Ellinor Michel, and Professor Joe Cain. As well as simply being concerned about the condition of these important Grade I listed structures, both Ellinor and Joe share a professional interest and expertise in the subject of dinosaurs. Ellinor works in the Department of Life Sciences at The Natural History Museum, specialising in Palaeontology, while Joe is a Professor of the History & Philosophy of Science at University College London, with particular interest in Evolution, Darwinism, and public interaction with science.
Initially, as is normal procedure these days, they set up a Facebook page, to raise awareness. Now with nearly 1700 followers, and a formalised Friends group with board members, they set, as their first objective, a condition survey to find out just how bad the Dinosaur's problems were. English Heritage duly visited last year, and were horrified by what they saw. Momentum has since been building, with the dinosaurs coming top of a council run survey about which elements of the park should be prioritised for improvements. With Bromley now apparently promising funds to help the project get off the ground, the ball is at last rolling, but plenty more needs to be done to secure their future.







It's said that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins hosted a dinner inside the Iguanadon

Iguanadon with Hylaeosaurus beyond


Pair of Anoplotherium


Megaloceros (Irish Elk)

Megatherium (Ground Sloth)

Rock structure showing strata from different ages, including a seam of coal, the basis of Britain's industrial revolution.

Entrance to the Mine, which once contained stalactites and stalagmites, now sadly all destroyed.

Alongside the works required to remedy the deterioration, other ideas are being proposed to make more of wonderful local asset such as a lighting scheme, and an interpretation centre, possibly housed in a proposed new cafe building. After all, the dinosaurs are so much more than mere statues, and deserve wider recognition and appreciation. Ellinor enthusiastically refers to them as "Muses for inspiration", and who hasn't had their imagination fired up on seeing them? Among those who have been inspired, is Anthony Lewis, who, in the guise of an intrepid Victorian explorer, made an enchanting film, entitled: Lost Valley of London. He recently reprised the role at an Overground Festival event for children called The Dinosaur Doctors. And I was certainly inspired, and fortunate too, to be given special access  to Dinosaur island with Ellinor and Joe last summer. You don't quite appreciate the scale until you're standing next to them.

Dr Ellinor Michel & Professor Joe Cain
Park Ranger, Adam Jenkins who arranged access to the island.

He's behind you, Joe!
Ellinor appreciating the scale, and scales of the beast

Adam with a 3D printed portrait of 'Meg'

Ellinor can be heard in an interview on Radio 4, talking about the dinosaurs, on Tuesday 28th July.