Friday, 1 July 2016

Chapter 6 “This journal contains the most amazing things you will have ever heard!”

The Natural History Museum at the time our story is set

All of this chapter is set in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.  This is somewhere Agent Triple P has been visiting ever since he was five years old.  Mainly, of course, because of its collection of dinosaur fossils, although we also liked the giant model of a Blue Whale when we were younger.  Today, we often meet up with people in its cafe, particularly our friend A, who has a friend who lives near by.  By the time of our story the museum, designed by Alfred Waterhouse in Romanesque style, had been open for just over thirty years.   In the excellent BBC adaption of The Lost World (2001) the lecture takes place at the Natural History Museum (although the actual lecture theatre was another location) but they depict the Diplodocus as being in the main hall.  Triple P wanted to put the dinosaur where it would have been in 1912.

The Reptile Hall in 1905

Professor Challenor's lecture takes place in the Reptile Hall, which was the original home of the museum's famous Diplodocus skeleton, nicknamed Dippy.  The skeleton is actually a copy of an original discovered in Wyoming in 1898.  It was acquired by Scottish-born millionaire Andrew Carnegie who wanted if for the museum he was building in Pittsburgh.

Dippy is unveiled in 1905 and also gives us an idea of what Professor Challenoir's lecture would have looked like

While Carnegie was staying at his Scottish Castle, King Edward VII saw a drawing of the Diplodocus and said it would be good to have one for the Natural History Museum.  Carnegie spent £2000 of his own money to have a cast made of all 292 bones and presented it to the Museum, where it was put on display in the Reptile Hall in 1905, ironically before the American original was on display in Pittsburgh.  The 105 foot long skeleton was so popular nine other casts were made for other museums around the world, making it the most viewed representation of a dinosaur skeleton.

The main hall of the museum in 1910

Today, it is in the main hall of the museum where it has been since 1979.  Next year, controversially, it will be replaced by a skeleton of a blue whale, suspended from the roof.  At the time of our story, in 1912, the main hall of the museum was dominated by a large stuffed African elephant.

The main hall (now called the Hintze Hall) of the Natural History Museum today

Dippy has been repositioned, with his tail held horizontally and no longer depicted dragging along the ground as when he was first assembled.  The Reptile Hall today is used for the Human Biology gallery and almost nothing of the original hall. as seen in the picture at the top of this post, is visible, although it is all still there beneath the modern hoardings.

Interestingly, considering our story, one of the current exhibits in the Human Biology gallery is this!   

The leaf of an extinct plant which Challenor brandishes during his lecture is that of glossopteris, a large prehistoric tree which flourished across the southern hemisphere.  It was the discovery of the fossils of glossopteris in South America, South Africa, India and Antarctica which was one of the first indications that the earth's continents had moved apart from one large land mass.

Owen's iguanodon at Crystal Palace

Chgallenor's description of the iguanodon, illustrated in Waring Blanc's journal, reflects the changes in interpretation of the fossils over the years. Iguanodon was the second ever dinosaur named, in 1825, by Gideon Mantell, based on a few fragmentary fossils found in 1822.  Initially, Mantell thought that the creatuire was a quadruped but as more bones turned up he changed his mind when he saw that the forelimbs seemed to be much smaller.  However, his more influential rival, Richard Owen, saw the creature as a lumbering quadruped and when he supervised the installation of a life sized model of the creature at Crystal Palace that was how the iguanodon was depicted.  Famously, the horn he put on its nose turned out to be the creature's thumb.

One of the Bernissart skeletons under reconstruction.

In 1878, however, a massive find in a coal mine at Bernissart in Belgium unearthed the remains of 38 separate iguanodon skeletons.  It was now apparent, with these much more complete skeletons, that the creature was, as was thought, bipedal.

So in 1912 the view of the iguanodon was that it was a creature that sat upright, like a kangaroo, using its tail to support it.  As was the case with all dinosaurs at the time (and in fact until well into the second half of the twentieth century) it was depicted as dragging its tail along the ground like a crocodile.

The interpretation of Iguanodon today

It wasn't until 1980, when David Norman re-examined iguanodon, that he pointed out that this tripod pose would have been impossible and the tail would have had to have been broken to achieve the kangaroo pose.  A more horizontal pose made much more sense given the hip bones and the formation of the legs.

The smaller but powerful forelimbs suggested that it spent a considerable time on four legs as well as two and that as the animal got older and heavier (it is now believed that dinosaurs grew constantly throughout there lives) it would have become, perhaps fully, quadrupedal.  

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