Dippy and the Whale; don’t forget a great philanthropist

This week there’s been a huge outcry over the Natural History Museum’s plan to replace the Diplodocus skeleton in the main hall with a skeleton of a Blue Whale. The Metro has started an online petition Save Dippy with 20,000 signatures.

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(c) Natural History Museum/Independent

Sir Michael Dixon, the museum’s director, want to highlight the plight of living species, and the NHM’s current research. This is part of the ‘three great narratives.’

These cover the origins and evolution of life, the diversity of life on Earth today, and the long-term sustainability of humans’ custodianship of the planet.

The cetacean has something to say on all them, particularly the last. Blue whales were hunted to the brink of extinction before a ban on their exploitation was put in place in the 1960s.

Indeed, it was NHM scientists who were instrumental in gathering the data in the earlier decades of the 20th Century that showed commercial practices were driving the animal to oblivion.

“And going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do,” explained Sir Michael.

“So, for example, today our teams help the police with the forensic examination of crime scenes; we do projects that potentially could help feed nine billion people in 2050; and we also look at whether it’s possible to eradicate certain parasitic diseases in Africa.

“We’re not just nerdy guys who can identify every species of butterfly.”

Dinosaurs were my first love, so I ought to be up in arms about this, but strangely I find myself agreeing with the museum. This is important work we need to be told about. In a week that two species of rhino have been declared functionally extinct, we need to focus on saving living species. And the skeleton diving down from the roof would be rather spectacular, as if visitors were sharing a deep ocean with it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m just old enough to remember when the Diplodocus wasn’t in the entrance hall, but down the middle of the old Hall of Dinosaurs. I used to have this postcard somewhere. Note the old-style dinosaur poses. Iguanodon crouches a bit more now, and Dippy was remounted with his tail held high in the 1990s.

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Museon den Haag/Pinterest

So move Diplodocus again by all means. But the museum seems to be writing it off. Their ideas for its future include going on a nationwide tour, which sounds hugely expensive and has ‘will never happen’ written all over it. Or replacing it with a durable resin version to be displayed outside, which would inevitably become a climbing frame. Why can’t the skeleton be put in another gallery? Why does it have to be phased out like this?

Sir Michael says it is ‘just a copy.’ But it is a copy with an amazing story. Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrialist, paid for the excavation of Diplodocus carnegii in 1899, which was named after him. Then in 1905 – at the suggestion of King Edward VII – Carnegie paid for twelve casts to be made from it and donated to museums round the world, including the Natural History Museum.

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Dippy’s unveiling in 1905 Science Buzz/Wikipedia.

Carnegie was a philanthropist on an epic scale. In his lifetime he gave away the equivalent of 4.5 billion pounds in charitable donations and foundations, from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where Dippy’s original lives, to public libraries all round the world, including the one in Stratford upon Avon where I grew up. At a time when government is is unable to fund libraries and so many are closing, Andrew Carnegie is a shining example to today’s mega-rich of the public duty that used to come with great wealth. We need to be reminded of him again, and maybe some of today’s billionaires will rediscover the honest pride of getting your name on a few buildings – or dinosaurs – and the satisfaction of helping future generations.

And I’m sure Dippy was the first thing that got lots of today’s scientists excited about museums – maybe the NHM should find room for him somewhere.

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(c)Natural History Museum/BBC

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