[Image above] Two of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur sculptures located in southeast London. This sculpture series features the first life-sized models of extinct animals. Credit: Ian Wright, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
It may sound cliché, but autumn is my favorite time of the year. Not because of pumpkin spice, though—because the mosquitos that tormented me throughout the warm spring and summer months are gone, and endless days of shoveling snow have not yet set in.
Of course, I also look forward to more conventional features of fall, such as apple cider and fuzzy sweaters. And this past weekend I had the chance to participate in another fall activity that I haven’t done in years—a corn maze!
The maze was Jurassic Park themed, and a map available at the entrance showed how the corn was planted to form dinosaurs when viewed from above. And within each dinosaur was hidden a kiosk with information about dinosaurs on it.
As I wandered the maze searching for and reading the kiosks, I noticed an emphasis on how much our knowledge of dinosaurs has changed since the movie Jurassic Park came out in 1993. For example, new fossil discoveries and analyses have revealed that Dilophosaurus does not spit venom and velociraptors were probably feathered like birds, unlike the movie depictions.
However, despite inaccuracies, the Jurassic Park movies are generally seen as a good thing for paleontology because of the explosion of interest they generated on the topic. And the same goes for another iconic piece of dinosaur lore—the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.
Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The original Jurassic Park
More than 100 years before Michael Crichton wrote the Jurassic Park novel, interest in dinosaurs was piqued by the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are a series of sculptures that depict dinosaurs and other extinct animals located in Crystal Palace Park, a park in southeast London. Though only four of the 30+ statues represent dinosaurs in the strict zoological sense of the word, people tend to call the whole series “dinosaurs” for simplicity. (Much like how we call the movie “Jurassic” Park even though most of the dinosaurs were from the Cretaceous period.)
The sculptures were commissioned in 1852 to accompany the relocation of the Crystal Palace, a cast iron and plate glass structure originally built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851.
When the Crystal Palace Dinosaur sculptures were unveiled in 1854, they were hailed as the first life-sized models of extinct animals ever made. The models were also praised for their accuracy, thanks to English sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins using the work of Britain’s premiere paleontologist and anatomist Sir Richard Owen to guide design of the models. (The extent to which Owen was actively involved in the creation process is debatable.)
Hawkins created the sculptures mainly from concrete, but other ceramic materials, such as brick and clay tile, were featured as well. And each sculpture contained a lot of these materials—in describing just the Iguanodon sculpture, Hawkins was recorded as saying it consisted of “four iron columns 9 feet long by 7 inches in diameter, 600 bricks, 650 5-inch half-rounded tiles, 900 plain tiles, 38 casks of cement, 90 casks of broken stone, making a total of 640 bushels of stone.”
Though advances in paleontology resulted in many critics deriding the sculptures as completely inaccurate by the 1890s, scientists today tend to be more forgiving. They acknowledge the limitations of the science when Hawkins created the models and instead focus on the impact the sculptures had on the public, a sentiment emphasized in All in the Bones, the first full-length biography of Hawkins published in 2008.
“All in the Bones points out that the articulated skeletons of dinosaurs and life-size models of how they may once have appeared are now so common in natural history museums that people take them for granted. But until Hawkins created such things in the second half of the 19th century, dinosaurs and their kin were little known, poorly understood, and of little interest to all but a handful of professional paleontologists,” a press release on the book says. “Through a series of public displays in Great Britain and the U.S., Hawkins almost single-handedly ignited a popular interest in dinosaurs and other forms of prehistoric life that continues to the present day.”
The journey to regaining scientific acceptance was a long one, though. The Crystal Palace Park fell into disarray after the turn of the century, most noticeably after the Crystal Palace was destroyed by a fire in 1936.
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs likewise fell into disarray, and though some restoration attempts took place throughout the years—such as in the 1959 film below—it wasn’t until 2002 that the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs underwent extensive restoration. In 2007, they were designated as a Grade I listing. (A Grade I listing signifies a building is deemed to be of exceptional interest and may also have been judged to be of significant national importance.)
Unfortunately, it appears the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are facing extinction once again. This February, the sculptures were added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register because of large cracks appearing in the bodies and limbs of some dinosaurs.
“The cause of the deterioration is not yet understood, but ground movement on the artificial islands which are home to the monsters and changing water levels in the surrounding lakes, is suspected,” a Historic England article on the announcement explains.
The charity Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, whose purpose is to promote the long-term conservation of these statues and the larger geological site, released the child-oriented video below to raise awareness of the main factors causing degradation.