Museums don’t often provoke strong emotions, but among the schoolkids and their teachers recently filing in to the Natural History Museum in London, there was shock, horror and dismay.
“Personally I feel really astonished. I just can’t believe it,” said one.
“If you do this to the Natural History Museum, you take away its soul!” said another.
They were talking about the museum’s decision to ditch its most iconic exhibit: Dippy the Dinosaur. The 85-foot-long skeletal diplodocus has towered over the museum’s entrance hall for more than three decades.
“This space is due for a refresh,” says Sir Michael Dixon, the museum’s director. “ We want to do things differently. We want to tell a story as to why the museum is special. And it is special because we have this wonderful collection of real objects from the natural world.”
Notice he says “real” objects. Here’s the second bombshell. And it is worse than debunking Father Christmas: Dippy is fake.
“Dippy is a cast. It’s a replica of several different skeletons,” says Richard Saybin, a collections manager at the museum. “Dippy is a life-size model of a diplodocus donated to Britain by the U.S. steel magnate Andrew Carnegie at the beginning of the 20th century. ”
The museum wants to replace Dippy with a genuine skeleton of a blue whale, the largest, existing animal on earth. The plan is to suspend whale from the ceiling of the entrance hall.
“The blue whale is a species that humans have taken to the edge of extinction through overexploitation. But then through careful management we’ve managed to pull that back. So it really does demonstrate what we – as a museum – are trying to achieve through our research,” Sabin says.
Cynics suggest that the museum’s decision to eject Dippy has more to do with money. Like most public museums and art galleries in Britain, the Natural History Museum doesn’t charge an entrance fee. It survives on government funding and on the revenue it can raise, including by hosting corporate events. Getting rid of Dippy, and suspending his successor from the ceiling, will free up valuable floor space. Sabin concedes that could be a benefit but insists that was not the main reason for the move.
Dippy isn’t headed for extinction. After he leaves the museum, he is going on the road as part of a traveling exhibition.