Dinosaurs might not be the first thing on your mind when you visit a local London park, but if you visit Crystal Palace they are one of the first things you will see. The Crystal Palace Park Dinosaurs were first built in 1854. Sculptures of extinct animals, they provide an insight into the early days of palentology, although they are now out of date.
The Origin of the Statues
Designed by Richard Owen, the founder of the natural history museum, the dinosaurs were built of concrete and opened to the public in 1854. However, science was already beginning to overtake them as more complete fossils were found.
The problems with the statues were many. The iguanadon was one of the most famous examples, mainly for its inaccuracies. Posed on all fours instead of two legs, with a nose horn that we now know to be a thumb spike, it illustrates the difficulties the early paleontologists had working with partial skeletons. The creature squatting like a hunched carnivorous toad is now thought to have been an early crocodile. The hylaeosaurus is turned away from its audience because scientists did not know what the head looked like, so the sculptor had to guess, and in the lake a creature is half submerged as they had the opposite problem and only knew what its head looked like.
By 1895 many scientists scorned them, despite their attraction to the public. Once the Crystal Palace burned down in 1936 little attention was paid to them, and the models fell into disrepair. However the statues provide a unique insight into the early development of paleontology.
Recently a campaign took place to fully restore them. Requests were made for any photographs of the models to use as guides, as some of the models were in such poor condition that their origina state was not obvious. Others needed to be recreated altogether. While the originals were concrete, the restoration project used fibreglass to repair most of the damage, which had been quiet extensive; for example the hylaeosaurus had lost its head. Ad-hoc restoration over the years also complicated matters, particularly when it was found that plasticine had been used on some models!
With a great deal of local support, the restoration was completed in 2002, and the statues can now be viewed as part of a free walk through the park. Divided into two groups, dinosaurs and early mammals, the sculptures are colour coded. The mammals are painted in beige and yellow, while the dinosaurs are green and those in the lake remain grey.
A carefully designed path takes you round enclosures containing huge reptiles and giant stags, and the lake that the ichthyosaurs share with swans and ducks. Now protected as listed buildings by a curious bureaucratic quirk, it seems unlikely they will be allowed to fall back into disrepair. On a hill overlooking it all sits one last curious monument; the original head of the hylaeosaurus which was seperated from the torso and could not be rejoined during restoration.
A modern visit
The nearest station is Crystal Palace, which is next to the park and only a ten minute walk from the dinosaurs. A number of buses also stop at the Crystal Palace Stadium located within the park and again only a few minutes walk.
The dinosaur tour itself is surprisingly short. A whistlestop tour can be completed in between fifteen minutes and an hour. However, this omits most of the detail of the statues and does the visitor a disservice. The visitor centre can provide guides that detail the dinosaurs, adding more colour to the walk. If they are closed the signs around the walk itself provide detail and background on the statues. A modern addition created during the restoration work, the posters also detail the progression of paleontology and show images of what the dinosaurs look like now.
For all their faults, the statues are still impressive. The first sight of an iguanadon’s head through the trees of a country park catches and holds the attention. Their inaccuracies also make them unique; while models of the modern appearance of dinosaurs are quite common, nowhere else in the world can you see creatures like these. Overall, outdated though they might be the dinosaurs provide an interesting look at the early days of paleontology, and an interesting addition to a picnic in the park on a hot summer’s day.
“The Dinosaur Hunters” by Deborah Cadbury
A visit to the park.