crystal palace dinosaurs

These concrete models of dinosaurs, life-size, are truly fascinating artifacts not just of ancient zoological history, but also the Victorian Era. They currently occupy a few islands in the center of Crystal Palace Park in London. Created in 1854 in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of three years previous–a showcase of the industrial might and (supposed) cultural superiority of British civilization in the early Victorian period–for years they stood guard outside the Crystal Palace itself, a mammoth steel and glass structure that once housed the Great Exhibition, which was the first World’s Fair. The Palace was a landmark of London until it burned down in November 1936, but the dinosaurs remained.

They were the creation of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a noted sculptor who often depicted themes in natural history. In 1852, when the animal statues were commissioned, the Western world was just beginning to learn about the great extinct beasts that once roamed the Earth in its early epochs. Hawkins’s dinosaur statues predated the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (associated with another object I showcased in this series) by five years, and later discoveries in paleontology would eventually render much of Hawkins’s depiction to be inaccurate. Nevertheless, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs was one of the earliest introductions of these massive creatures–now well-known to 7-year-olds everywhere–into popular culture.

The dinosaurs are made from concrete, usually surrounding bricks in a steel form. They are life-sized, at least so far as Hawkins and the scientific expert he consulted, Sir Richard Owen, knew in 1854. Eerily, after the Crystal Palace itself burned down, the park containing the dinosaurs became neglected and overgrown–which must have been an eerie sight. Now imbued with their own unique history, the sculptures were restored in 1952 and again a half-century later. The Great Exhibition is long-past, Queen Victoria dead and even the Crystal Palace itself a memory, but these visages of the paleozoic past–and the Victorian Era–still remain, strangely timeless as the modern world changes around them.

The photo of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs is by Flickr/Wikimedia Commons user Jes and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.