A Brief History
On December 31, 1853, one of the strangest dinner parties held to that point in history occurred when the Crystal Palace Park of London was host to a dinner inside the mold of an extinct dinosaur.
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Sir Richard Owen had been contracted to construct replicas of 33 dinosaurs by the Crystal Palace company, formerly the site of the Great London Exhibition of 1851. Commissioned in 1852, the exhibit of extinct dinosaurs and ancient mammals was called the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs or simply Dinosaur Court. Open to the public in 1854, the Dinosaur Court was the first display of dinosaur statues or replicas in the world. Hawkins provided the artistic and sculpture skills while Owen provided the paleontology expertise regarding the animals. It is notable that the display was created 6 years before Darwin’s major work on evolution, On The Origin of Species (1859).
The dinner was held in the mold used to create the Iguanodon (a duck billed dinosaur) statue, an event used to create a stir in the press to publicize the project. (No word if Fred Flintstone’s favorite, Brontoburgers, were served!)
Not all the creatures depicted were true dinosaurs, but incredibly most of the replicas remain at Crystal Palace Park even today. Marine creatures and flying dinos are included in the mix of displays. Of course, the 1850s were the early days of dinosaur research and within a few decades much of the science had changed regarding assumptions about the age and appearance of many of the animals depicted. Restoration of the display was needed by 1952, and another restoration took place in 2002. Some sculptures were rebuilt using modern materials such as fiberglass.
Cultural references to the Dinosaur Park can be found in novels, children’s books, art, and even music. The display may not match the wonderful animatronic displays often found in today’s zoo’s and Natural History Museums, and the realism certainly will not rival the Jurassic Park films, but for its time the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs must have been about the most impressive glimpse into the distant past the public could hope for. Today, the park is still a popular attraction.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a favorite dinosaur or ancient creature display? If so, please tell us where we can see it in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
London Crystal Palace Company. The Crystal Palace and Park in 1853: What Has Been Done, What Will Be Done: Addressed to Intending Exhibitors. Franklin Classics, 2018.