Imagine: It’s 1854. The concept of evolution won’t be introduced for another five years or so. The word dinosaur is only about a decade old. There are no David Attenborough documentaries teaching you about extinct animals.
Now imagine yourself as a resident of Victorian London, walking into Crystal Palace Park in the southeastern part of the city. There you encounter dozens of three-dimensional dinosaurs and ancient mammals you could have never imagined, made of clay, brick and other available building materials. They are arranged in small groups, poking out from behind trees and bushes, some of them towering over their human visitors out for an afternoon stroll.
Except you don’t have to imagine too hard, because those statues are still there, some 170 years later. They’re a little worse for wear and are no longer considered scientifically accurate. But they delight visitors all the same. And this month, thanks to conservators, scientists and a group called the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, their Paleolithic picnic party grew a little, with the addition of a new statue — well, a recreation of an old statue — to replace one that disappeared in the 1960s.
A ‘revolutionary’ walk through time, for its time
The statues, built by the 19th century artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, are part of a reconstructed geological walk through time, starting 260 million years ago. They were the first of their kind, much to the admiration of the public at the time.
“It was educational for the Victorians,” said Adrian Lister, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “It was revolutionary.”
The sculptures by Mr. Hawkins, who was one of the best-known natural history sculptors at the time, were supposed to educate and entertain visitors near the Crystal Palace, an exhibition space that had been built for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. After the exhibition, that palace moved to the area to which it gives its name today. (The statues have outlived the actual palace, which burned down in 1936.)
The statues popularized science, bringing the idea of extinction and changing environments to regular people, not just the upper classes, said Ellinor Michel, an evolutionary biologist and the chair of Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. “This was the birthplace of large-scale ‘edu-tainment,’” said Ms. Michel, who also lives nearby.
The statues do not reflect the extinct animals based on what we know today. Within decades of their construction they were out of date, Ms. Michel said, because of new scientific discoveries.
But accuracy isn’t the point, Ms. Michel said. “Science moves and science self improves,” she said.
‘They weren’t built to last that long.’
Of the 38 original statues, 30 remain, and they show every bit of their almost 170 years.
The statues are made from whatever materials were available at the time, and as a result, are plagued by issues like rusting iron. While they’ve been maintained over the years, some look weathered, and at least one of them is missing a head.
“They weren’t built to last that long,” said Simon Buteux of Historic England, an organization that advises the government on England’s heritage. “We’ve got a huge problem of conserving them.”
What’s important to maintain, Mr. Buteux said, is the original feeling of how revolutionary these statues were in the 19th century.
“It was fresh, it was new, it was cutting edge,” he added. “That’s what we want to capture.”
‘It’s got a silly face.’
No one knows quite what happened to the original Palaeotherium magnum, which disappeared from the park in the 1960s. An herbivore that was loosely related to horses, the statue looked something like a horse with stumpy snout.
Seven other statues are also missing. The circumstances surrounding most of the disappearances are “giant mysteries,” Ms. Michel said.
Bob Nicholls, an artist who focuses on prehistoric animals, proposed bringing back the Palaeotherium magnum to the park. The Friends of Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs then secured funding that helped make his recreated Palaeotherium magnum a reality. The new statue was installed in the park in early July.
To recreate what Mr. Hawkins imagined the herbivore might have looked like, Mr. Nicholls turned to the few available photographs of it from the 1950s and ’60s.
It took him about six weeks to build the new statue, which is hollow inside and made of fiberglass, a durable material. He’s happy with how it turned out, he said: “It’s got a silly face.”
“The new sculpture draws attention to the importance of the site in the history of science,” Mr. Lister, the paleobiologist, said.
About half a million people visit the statues annually, according to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. And they continue to inspire awe, with parents taking pictures of their children in front of them and lingering by the large statues.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Jenny Steel, a local resident who walks through the park multiple times a week, was on her way to admire the newest addition. “They are quite larger than life,” she said.
Just a bit further along the walk, Ian Baxter, who has lived in the area for 50 years, was sitting on a rock near the statues with his poodle, Rory. Back when he was a teenager, he said, he used to climb into the hollow structures. Today, he looks at them from the other side. “I like the dinosaurs,” he said. “Of course I do.”
Another local resident, Gabriel Birch, said he visits the park at least once a month.
“We come here for the dinosaurs,” he said. “My three-year-old thinks they’re real.”