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A Blue Whale Dethrones a Dinosaur as Natural History Museums Embrace Their Research Side

Rendering of the blue whale skeleton in the main Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in London (courtesy the museum)
Rendering of the blue whale skeleton in the main Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in London (courtesy the museum)

Museum displays are constantly in flux, as institutions choose what identity they want to present to the public. For the London Natural History Museum, the emphasis has been on its scientific research and dedication to the ecology of our contemporary world. Last month, the museum announced it would be replacing the Diplodocus cast skeleton in the main Hintze Hall with a blue whale skeleton by 2017, stating the cetacean was “chosen to reflect the heart of the Museum’s research into the rich biodiversity of Earth and a sustainable future, as well as the origins and evolution of life.”

Dippy in the main hall of the Natural History Museum (photograph by Allan Henderson, via Flickr)
Dippy in the main hall of the Natural History Museum (photo by Allan Henderson, via Flickr) (click to enlarge)

In the days following the announcement, there’s been an uproar among supporters of the dethroned dinosaur, with Dippy, as the Diplodocus is affectionately nicknamed, the subject of a #SaveDippy hashtag, op-eds, and an online petition with, as of now, over 30,800 supporters. The petition argues Dippy has “inspired generations of schoolchildren to look back to the earth’s past and help them think about looking after the planet’s future” and the replacement “would threaten this and lead to many unhappy faces in the UK youth.”

The museum, to its credit, has been active in engaging Dippy supporters on social media, emphasizing in a rebuttal on Twitter that the whale is symbolic of “an active scientific research institution” that “helps shape what happens with the natural world now.” The museum was also careful in its announcement to show numerous archive images of how the main entry hall has changed since it opened in 1881, even including a sperm whale skeleton as one of the earliest displays. Dippy, a cast from Diplodocus bones found in Wyoming in 1899, has presided since 1979, but even he has altered a bit, getting an updated pose for his tail in the 1990s when new research suggested dinosaurs didn’t drag their tails on the ground behind them.

A sperm whale skeleton in Hintze Hall in 1901 (via London Natural History Museum)
A sperm whale skeleton in Hintze Hall in 1901 (via London Natural History Museum)

Dinosaurs are, and will likely long be, major showpieces for natural history museums — the London NHM in December debuted the world’s most complete Stegosaurus (nicknamed Sophie, as nothing endears a 150 million-year-old creature like a diminutive title). However, more and more museums are emphasizing a public profile of active research. The American Museum of Natural History recently announced plans to build an expansion focusing on scientific research and connecting its labs to visitors. In 2002, the NHM opened the Darwin Centre that gave new public access to the previously off-limits collections and labs.

By showcasing the blue whale, which is now hard to appreciate in the mammals hall in a Maurizio Cattelan-esque jumble of taxidermy and casts, the museum announces itself from its entrance as devoted to the biodiversity of today. Blue whales — the largest mammal to ever live — are easily as incredible as dinosaurs. Their hearts alone are about the size of Volkswagen Beetles; they can be louder than a jet engine. They’re also still part of our ecosystem, but a fragile one as their numbers were devastatingly cut down by hunting. Dippy may go on tour, and will surely remain a constant part of the museum as a beloved mascot. The whale, meanwhile, could be a powerful statement on the importance of this endangered species and how the museum is as much a scientific institution of the present as a celebration of the past.  

Dippy's neck extending from the hall (photograph by the author)
Dippy’s neck extending from the hall (photo by the author)
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