Amidst all the headlines about global pandemic in the last few weeks, there was a story a couple of weeks ago which caught my eye.
I’m well aware you probably didn’t notice this, and don’t blame you. There’s a lot more to worry about, what with the world falling to pieces and all. So why did I care about this? Nostalgia, mainly. I grew up in Bromley, and as a kid got taken to Crystal Palace Park fairly regularly.
There were a few things about it which made it a good trip. It was a park, it had a farm/zoo (both, maybe?). Most importantly though, there were the dinosaurs. I was, like many other small children, dinosaur obsessed until about 7. I was one of those whose first career ambition was palaeontology. I had books, models, knew most of the facts in the Natural History Museum and could name and date any dinosaur you cared for. So of course I was going to love the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, and they were always cool. An early look at the wonders of unknown nature and stories.
But even Small Me soon learned that they were curiosities rather than records. One of my first ever magazines told the story of how they were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition to the standards of 1851 science.Emphasis on the fact that of course, this was science to be looked back on with an overwhelmingly critical eye.A lot about the dinosaurs is wrong you see. Those which we now know walked on two legs crawl on four, and bone structures are incorrect. “Dinosaur” means terrible lizard: these guys just took the lizard part and ran with it. Advances in this scientific knowledge have reduced the part of these sculptures to the story of progress to a minor one, more of a curiosity.
Fair enough. But surely it’s also fair to look at the sculptures as a story of artistic interpretation as much as scientific. These guys looked at the bones they were finding – only recognised in Britain as belonging to ancient species for about 30 years – and put them together by combining experience and imagination. Now that thousands of minds have spent thousands of hours digging, researching and reconstructing it’s easy to ridicule.
On this note, it’s often the case that one of the most commented errors on the lot is most likely down to a case of reasonable scientific moderation. It actually makes way more sense to put the Iguanodon spike on its nose because of course it does if you’re going off empirical evidence. How many animals go round with massive fucking spiky bone thumbs? But then that’s one of the greatest joys of dinosaurs – that they seem to always be making new discoveries about them that introduce new levels of headfuckery. Like when they started revealing a few years ago that some dinosaurs were actually feathered – that was quite the mind-melt for those of us who grew us in the thrall of the scaly lizards. A spike in the wrong place suddenly seems like a fairly mild error when compared to changing the entire perception of what they are.
That’s the beauty of dinosaurs though, as true now as it was then. The reason they’re so fascinating is that they’re really still so unfathomable, even with so much more knowledge. They went extinct 65 million years ago: have you ever tried to think about just how long ago that is? There is literally nothing in the realm of experience you can compare it directly to. That kind of distance does funny things to dinosaurs. It makes them creatures akin to vampires and ghosts; non-existent and thus great candidates for the imagination. It’s the thing about the Crystal Palace dinosaurs, that they’re a really early example of trying to bridge this gap between imagination and knowledge. Yes they got a few things wrong, but they were willing to consider these creatures as having once had a physical truth. Literally, to put flesh on the bones of a concept which must have seemed absurd to so many.
Does anybody make art about dinosaurs now? I’m not counting the Jurassic World movies – though their version of a Mosasaurus is definitely wilder than the Crystal Palace sculptor could ever have dreamed. I guess science has thrown up so many more directly affective discoveries in the last 180 years that dinosaurs get left to the world of kids along with fairy tales and imaginary friends. Maybe we should revisit their madness more. To 3-year-old me the Crystal Palace dinosaurs were a very cool representation of the “what if?” possibilities of things I didn’t know about in the world. In fact, though, the creators of these relics would have done better to let their imaginations run even wilder with the possibilities. Rather than seeing their imperfections, why don’t we read them for that?
Featured image from Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs