As many of you will have heard, the Natural History Museum (NHM) plans to renovate many of its public galleries over the next few years, starting with a major overhaul of the museum's most heavily used and best-loved space - Hintze Hall (formerly known as the Central Hall). The project is already well underway behind the scenes, with planning meetings, content development work and detailed investigations all underway with the aim of refreshing the content of this cathedral-like space. The NHM announced its intentions to the public early in 2015 and intends to complete the transformation by 2017. An artist's impression of the dramatic new vision was circulated with the press announcement, showing an impressive Blue Whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling, floating in mid-air. However, although the impact of the whale skeleton received a lot of attention following the announcement, more attention was paid to the fate of an object that was absent from the plans. Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the new vision relates to the removal of one exhibit in particular: the NHM's iconic replica of Diplodocus carnegeii, affectionately known as Dippy. After more than three decades of greeting visitors to Hintze Hall, Dippy will be moving on to pastures new in 2017.
Dippy was presented to the NHM in 1905 by the Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, following a request from King Edward VII. In its 110 years at the NHM, Dippy has moved around - from an original position in the now defunct marine reptile gallery to its current position in Hintze Hall. It's pose has changed, reflecting changes in our knowledge of Diplodocus, and it is arguably the NHM's best known and most photographed object. So, why does it have to go?*
Personally, I have a strong sentimental attachment to Dippy: after all, it was one of the displays I visited again and again as a child and a teenager and it was definitely one of the objects that nurtured my early interest in palaeontology. Moreover, my first scientific papers were on feeding in Diplodocus and since joining the NHM I have spent many hours talking about the specimen, both to the public, VIPs and on camera, and have written a book on the specimen's history and influence. However, even with of all this in mind, it may surprise many to know that I am not against the proposed change to Hintze Hall – and this is a personal view, not my loyal towing of the NHM's corporate line (although I do have a line to toe too, obviously).
My lack of objection can be summarised succinctly: Dippy is a replica. Although an impressive object, and a stunning exhibit that beautifully compliments the proportions of Hintze Hall, Dippy is neither authentic, nor unique. Indeed, copies of Dippy can be seen in museums from Argentina to Berlin, so although its status as the first of these replicas to be put on display has strong historical interest, there are plenty of other casts out there as well as the original skeleton in the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh. The NHM has had a recent change of ethos, which is just starting to be implemented, to replace replicas and models in its galleries with real specimens wherever possible, to allow the public to interact directly with natural objects, a philosophy I think commendable. So, Dippy falls foul of this criterion (although I do object strongly to those media outlets that called Dippy a fake - it's not a fake, it's a replica).
Of course, I'd have have preferred to replace Dippy with a new impressive dinosaur exhibit - preferably a real Diplodocus (or other sauropod) skeleton, but a new dinosaur display was not within the scope of the project. However, the NHM also has other reasons for wanting to refresh the Hintze Hall offer - showing that our collections and science are societally relevant - hence the appearance of the Blue Whale as a focus for understanding our current biodiversity crisis.
Various rumours regarding Dippy's fate have been circulating, which have no basis in fact: the NHM is not selling Dippy, nor are we disposing of it in any other way. Dippy is a research quality cast of high scientific and historical value and is a formally registered part of the NHM's dinosaur collection (which means we treat it like any other object in the museum's collection). Moreover, it's not all bad news for Dippy fans. The NHM is keen to try and put Dippy on tour or on loan to other venues throughout the UK so people can get to see it in all its glory outside of London. Plans for these options are currently under discussion. However, if you want to see Dippy in pride of place in Hintze Hall the clock is now ticking ...
*Disclaimer: I am not personally involved in any of the project teams/committees that made or are implementing this decision.