Go back to article: A discourse with deep time: the extinct animals of Crystal Palace Park as heritage artefacts


The discourse with deep time continues and, indeed, it is fostered by the Friends who ‘encourage [visitors] to draw their own meaning from the site’ (Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, ‘Who are Friends…’ n.d.,). Such discourse is idiosyncratic and often ephemeral; and yet, some of these interactions do leave material traces. The practice of postering over signs in the park, for instance, is a manifestation of contemporary public engagement with the prehistoric animal models. Visitors who saw conservators working on phase two of conservation work on the ‘Victorian Saurian marvels’ during the summer of 2017 may have also spotted fliers posted about the park that lambasted austerity politics through satire (see Figures 11 and 12).[7]

Figure 11

Colour photograph of a poster informing public that conservation work will be carried out on the concrete dinosaurs

Crystal Palace Park signs, sanctioned and not (photographed by author on 14 June 2017)

Figure 12

Fly poster relating to austerity

Detail of unsanctioned satirical poster (photographed by author on 14 June 2017)

An unsanctioned posting interrupts the official sign that informs visitors about the Park Cafe’s operation hours and offerings. Black gothic font on plain white paper states, ‘Austerity and the Demolition of the Welfare State Campaign to Restore Sydenham Ducking Stool’. A line drawing depicts men lowering a woman into water upon said ducking stool, an absurd and heavily gendered punishment that was used for centuries to censure individuals in public settings, though the practice fell out of use by the early nineteenth century, well before the debut of the geological islands in the Crystal Palace Park (Underdown, 1985). The flier offers no other details, but the absurdity of its platform signals that it must be satire. Like the theft of cement teeth in the 1850s, the practice of postering is a material way through which the public asserts a relationship with the Crystal Palace models and the park that hosts them. Moreover, the critique of national policy that this particular poster puts forward resonates with the easily undone progress narrative that Victorian visitors to the Crystal Palace would have experienced as they took in, simultaneously, the wonders of former empires along with the message that these empires, no matter how grand, ultimately fell (Piggott, 2004: 75).

In some instances, exhibitions are ephemeral experiences. More often, though, displays outlast the context of their creation. Though scientifically obsolete, the extinct animal models of the Crystal Palace Park have survived to become significant historical and cultural artefacts and familiar facets of London life. The models have witnessed a half-dozen British monarchs, survived wars and weathered the end of an empire, while generation upon generation of visitor encountered Victorian visions of the land’s prehistoric past.[8] ‘We don’t own the dinosaurs. Everybody does,’ the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs declare on their website, for ‘they are a heritage asset owned by the public’. Though, the Friends clarify, it is the borough of Bromley that serves as their ‘legal custodian’ (Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, ‘Who are Friends…’ n.d.). The Friends have here offered a revision on the claims made by Richard Owen and the British press about extinct animals and national patrimony. According to the Friends and the heritage sector that they work within, it is not the extinct animals but the models representing them that are particularly British, at once historical artefacts and heritage assets.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191102/006