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

Consuming the past

By exhibiting a contemporary mining venture in the most remote region of the park, the geological section upset the linear narrative of the Crystal Palace and suggested a contemporaneous relationship between past and present. This possibility resonated throughout the palace and park, for despite its relatively chronological design visitors could choose their own paths. They could experience temporalities out of order or consume them all at once, collapsing geographical and temporal distances. Stephanie Moser (2012: 154–155) suggests that comparison among the Fine Arts Courts was the unavoidable result of their proximity. A balcony elevated visitors and allowed them to ‘contemplate the art of past nations at a single glance’. This visual and material ‘panorama of antiquity’ transformed contemporary Victorians’ relationship to the past by facilitating physical engagement between ‘historical’ periods and the modern one.

Naturalists themselves acted out the intimate relationship between past and present in spectacular form. Most famously, Hawkins hosted a dinner for fellow naturalists within the hollow mould of his massive Iguanodon, an event that garnered prolonged press attention and ensured that his monstrous models would be alive in the imagination of the British public months before the Crystal Palace opened. It was on the last day of 1853 that Hawkins welcomed twenty-eight men of science into his studio to inspect the progress he had made in constructing the ‘members of his monster family’. Twenty-one of them squeezed within the massive girth of the ‘carcass’ for dinner, prompting the author of Routledge’s Guide to declare the animal ‘a true Briton’ on account of its robust waistline. The men toasted the intellects of pioneering palaeontologists such as the late Georges Cuvier, the recently deceased Gideon Mantell (who had described and named the extinct animal in which they men dined), the ailing William Buckland, and Richard Owen, who was in attendance and seated in the skull, at the literal head of the table (MacDermott, 1854: 20, 194; Bramwell 2008: 24–5). Deep time and modernity were conflated in the belly of the beast, which was understood by Victorians as a doubly impressive feat of engineering. That such a massive and strange creature ever existed reflected the skill of a Creator, while its material presence in the nineteenth century spoke to the immense labour, intellect and skill of the naturalists who reconstructed it (see Figure 5).[4]

Figure 5

Colour photograph of two concrete Iguanadon models from the nineteenth century in different states of repair

Iguanodon models, constructed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, in various states of repair (photographed 2018)

Though a model, Hawkins’ Iguanodon did, figuratively, come to life, enlivened by the men within it. Edward Forbes, a geologist and a poet, was inspired to compose a few verses while dining inside the mould. The poem emphasised the creature’s now animated nature:

Beneath his hide he’s got inside
The souls of living men,
Who dare our Saurian now deride
With life in him again?

All joined in for the chorus, declaring:

The jolly old beast
Is not deceased,
There’s life in him again. (a roar)

Scientific inquiry and industrial technology had brought these creatures back to life, but the resurrection functioned on a more literal level, too. According to one account, the men had joined their voices together in song ‘in a manner so fierce and enthusiastic, as almost to lead to the belief that a herd of iguanodons were bellowing from some of the numerous pit-falls in Penge Park, in which they had been entrapped’ (MacDermott, 1854: 21–22).[5]

It was of course fortunate for the men in attendance that the creatures in Hawkins’ studio were only lifelike and not actually alive. Punch commented, ‘We congratulate the company on the era in which they live; for if it had been an early geological period, they might perhaps have occupied the Iguanodon’s inside without having any dinner there’ (Anonymous, 1854e: 4). Giving thanks that these beasts no longer lived was a common refrain. Queen Victoria had paid a visit to the Crystal Palace when it was still under construction. She inspected the palaeontological models and conversed with Hawkins about ‘the mysteries of antediluvian existence’ (Anonymous, 1854a: 3). The Queen was particularly astonished at the size of the Iguanodon. The King of Belgium, her uncle, was overheard joking that he was grateful this creature was ‘not now one of your subjects’ (Anonymous, 1854c: 3). Britain was eager to benefit economically and intellectually from its fossil resources and inserted these extinct reptiles into the nation’s historical narrative by labelling them ‘natives’, but the discourse between geological past and human present was never an evenly matched conversation. The past was only made present on Britons’ terms. They would not allow it to consume them.

Visitors to the park performed just this sentiment by breaking off bits of Hawkins’ models, typically targeting the teeth. That Hawkins had sculpted many of his models with open jaws and bared teeth, an artistic choice that advertised both the animals’ fearsome nature (a detail that contemporary newspapers were quick to sensationalise) and the importance of dental fossils to palaeontological practice, practically invited this type of theft, especially once the statues started to deteriorate from constant exposure to the elements (Marshall, 2007: 292; Secord, 2004: 161). The past, especially a reconstructed and inorganic one, could not respond. Yet, it was precisely this fear of being consumed by the ages that troubled Victorians. The unfamiliar forms of Hawkins’ figures were visual evidence of extinction and unsettled the Palace’s triumphalist plot by intimating that one day the visitors too would be members of an extinct race. The exhibits in the Crystal Palace hinted as much, too, for the Fine Arts Courts celebrated once glorious but now defunct civilisations. Together with the geological section’s reconstructions of prehistoric forms of life, the Crystal Palace and its grounds functioned as a collective mausoleum to a former world. Jan Piggott (2004: 75) observes that the palace’s parade of the past ‘suggested a certain politics of empire, a philosophy and even a morality: the fall of proud, wealthy and luxurious civilisations’. Was Britain next?

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a concrete Labryinthodon model from the nineteenth century

A Labryinthodon shows its teeth (photographed 2018)

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a concrete Labryinthodon model from the nineteenth century

On a sunnier day, another Labryinthodon seems to smile amidst blooming wildflowers. This reptile lived during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras and died out before the evolution of flowering plants (photographed by author on 14 June 2017)

According to the geological section, the answer to this question was a resounding no, because while the lessons of former worlds caused anxieties about the trajectory of a British Empire that was, according to this very exhibition, at the height of its power, the geological and palaeontological models communicated a more hopeful message. Deep time had been domesticated, corralled and commoditised by British naturalists. The song composed by Edward Forbes from within the belly of Hawkins’ Iguanodon reflected the presentist nature and patriotic possibilities of the palaeontology presented at Sydenham. What began with a description of the scientific resurrection of an extinct beast –

A thousand ages underground
His skeleton had lain;

– concluded with hopeful praise for the improvements that the ‘People’s Palace’ would bestow upon the nation.

Though savage war her teeth may gnash,
And human blood may flow,
And foul ambition, fierce and rash,
Would plunge the world in woe.
Each column of this palace fair
That heavenward soars on high,
A flag of hope shall on it bear,
Proclaiming strife must die!
And art and science far shall spread
Around this fair domain,
The People’s Palace rears its head
With life in it again.

Forbes’ verses (MacDermott, 1854: 21–22) transformed the Iguanodon into the Crystal Palace itself, enlisting deep time to the service of the human present. What Forbes did in meter, British naturalists and engineers accomplished in fact, converting the fossils and other minerals extracted from English rock into the intellectual and economic capital that would power the nation and its empire.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191102/004