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

Designs on deep time

The exhibits at Sydenham were governed by what Nancy Rose Marshall (2007: 294) has described as ‘spatial time’. A literal progress narrative, the linear organisation of the Crystal Palace invited visitors to anticipate that Britannia would attain even greater triumphs in the arts and industry than those of the great civilisations of antiquity. The grounds, which terminated at the geological section in the very ‘bowels’ of the park, employed a linear narrative complementary to that of the main building (Marshall, 2007: 291). Entering the park by way of the palace, visitors experienced this progress in reverse. They would encounter gardens and fountains representative of cultured civilisations before meeting ethnological exhibits meant to illustrate prehistoric peoples and arriving ultimately at the reconstructions of long extinct animals and geological formations. Thus they proceeded from historical to pre-historical to geological temporalities in mere moments.

The extinct animals displayed in the geological section were not articulated fossils. They incorporated no organic – or even previously organic – matter. They were enormous sculptures built from iron and cement (choice building materials of the industrial age) meant only to represent the creatures of deep time. This artifice was no secret. Richard Owen lectured and published about the methodology that sculptor Hawkins employed to create these lifelike monsters. Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World, the official guide to the geological section which Owen himself wrote, explained that he had chosen to sculpt animals for which ‘the entire, or nearly entire, skeleton had been exhumed in a fossil state’. Having a relatively complete skeletal frame from which to extrapolate the animal’s general shape, Owen explained, Hawkins approximated the organic matter not preserved during fossilisation, such as fatty tissue and skin texture, by drawing analogies to ‘the nearest allied living animals’. This practice of approximation led to disagreements between sculptor and comparative anatomist that played out in the latter’s guidebook. The nasal horns on the Iguanodon models were ‘more than doubtful’, Owen informed his readers. He entirely avoided description of the dorsal hump that Hawkins had added to the Megalosaurus (see Figure 2), though the guidebook’s illustration depicted it without one, a wordless critique of artistic license (Owen 1854: 5–6, 17–21; Secord 2004: 157). Thus, while Owen did not have much influence over the design of the extinct animal models, he did have the power to interpret them for visitors.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of a concrete megalosaur model from the nineteenth century

A carnivorous Megalosaurus represented with anatomical features that Richard Owen ignored in his guidebook (photographed 2018)

What distinguished the models of the geological section from the art and artefacts displayed in the Crystal Palace itself was their provenance. In his guidebook, Owen traced the regional pedigree of twenty-two models originally displayed in the geological section. Of these twenty-two – which, significantly, did not include all of the exhibited models – only one lacked a relationship to the literal land of England. Incomplete remains of the Megalosaurus had been extracted from the oolitic stratum near Oxford, in Bath, in the Tilgate Forest of Kent, and in various towns of Sussex and Yorkshire (Owen, 1854: 19). Mesozoic marine reptiles called ichthyosaurs were found in the lias stratum of Lyme Regis, and in Bristol, Glastonbury and Gloucestershire. Fellow water dwellers, the plesiosaurs, were frequently discovered in Dorset and Somerset. The Labyrinthodon, represented by Hawkins as a toadlike creature, was found throughout Warwickshire and Cheshire. Mosasaurus, though first discovered on the banks of the Meuse River in Germany from which the marine reptile took its name, was also discovered in the Cretaceous chalk formations of Kent (1854: 11, 29, 38). And so on. The iteration and reiteration in Owen’s guidebook, which lists English counties and towns again and again as the sites of great fossil discoveries, conveys his conviction that the local origins of these animals were significant. Lyme Regis, Tilgate Forest, the Weald of Kent, and Surrey had all yielded spectacular fossils in the decades before the opening of the Crystal Palace. Indeed, the Wealden chalk formation earned its epithet as ‘the metropolis of the “dinosaurs”’ (MacDermott, 1854: 193; Freeman 2004: 1). Even the ‘dog-toothed’ Dicynodon, though found in the sediment of South Africa could be claimed as a British, if not English, product through imperial expansion, for its bones were discovered by Englishman Andrew G Bain, who was stationed at Cape Colony while building military roads (1854: 38–39). The local nature of the fossils on which Hawkins based the majority his models for the geological section made them especially suited for the mission of the Crystal Palace that aimed to set Britain atop the pyramid of civilisations. But the geological section was not a paean to British resources exclusively.

A visitor who relied upon Owen’s guidebook exclusively might assume that all of the creatures modelled in the geological section had British provenance. In fact, a contemporary manual, Routledge’s Guide to the Crystal Palace and Park at Sydenham, and visitor accounts to the park confirm that there were at least a few animal types imported for the geological section – a model of a Megatherium, a giant ground sloth native to the Americas and small herds of the tapir-like Palaeotherium and the camel-snouted Anoplotherium, diminutive mammals that lived in Continental forests and were unearthed from the Paris Basin (Rupke, 2009: 256; MacDermott, 1854: 191–192; McCarthy and Gilbert, 1994: 25, 78–80). Moreover, Hawkins was in the process of constructing a mammoth, and had plans for a mastodon, a massive armadillo-like creature called a Glyptodon, and a Dinornis, the giant moa endemic to New Zealand, when the Crystal Palace Company dismissed him in 1855 due to a lack of funds (McCarthy and Gilbert 1994: 33; Piggott 2004: 163). Owen’s guide was not comprehensive. He failed even to mention Hawkins’ models of Megaceros giganteus, the Great Irish Elk, native to the British Isles, despite the fact that his recently published A History of British Fossil Mammals and Birds included an extended analysis of British cervids and thus demonstrated expertise on these animals (Owen 1846: 444–490; Piggott 2004: 161, 164).

Figure 3

Colour photograph of three concrete anoplotherium models from the nineteenth century

A family of Anoplotherium, less publicised and protected than the extinct reptiles (photographed 2018)

Figure 4

Colour photograph of two concrete Great Irish Elk models from the nineteenth century

Irish Elk, much more recent inhabitants of the British Isles than the dinosaurs (photographed by author on 14 June 2017)

Did Owen’s book simply go to print before all of Hawkins’s models were installed? This could be the case for some of the omissions and certainly accounts for his silence regarding the incomplete Mastodon and Dinornis, but there is something calculated about the creatures Owen elected to describe. Instead of accounting for all of the models displayed in the geological section, his guide exclusively featured the extinct creatures understood as reptiles – all of which were indigenous to the geographic region presently known as England or to British imperial soil. These fossil finds – recently discovered, spectacularly proportioned, bizarrely shaped, as well as local – contributed to a general air of excitement regarding British palaeontology. Owen’s guidebook, in part, capitalised on public enthusiasm for these homegrown discoveries. The Iguanodon was, without question, more sensational than the familiar Great Irish Elk. But his selectiveness also seems to reflect a desire to make deep time manageable and comprehensible to his Victorian audience. The geological past is vast; one must fence it in. Owen corralled geological time by assigning it temporal and geographic boundaries. In publishing Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World, a seemingly comprehensive account of the geological section, Owen wielded his authority as anatomist and exhibit interpreter to decide for his audience which extinct animals were to be associated with the nation in the pseudo-national Crystal Palace at Sydenham.

Owen’s effort to place nature in the service of the nation was not confined to this one publication; in fact, it was a principle that governed his life’s work. In 1845, while employed as curator at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, he presented a report to its governing body detailing his vision for a national museum of comparative anatomy that would rival Cuvier’s Muséum d’histoire naturelle and other Continental institutions. He petitioned them to transform the collection from something predominately medical to a comprehensive anatomical one in order to accumulate intellectual capital and enhance Britain’s prestige. As Rupke (2009: 44) explains, Owen fervently believed that ‘to collect, to display, to describe, and to lecture about objects of natural history increased [an] institution’s and, by association, [it’s] nation’s “intellectual wealth”’. There was an imperial tone to Owen’s agenda. He described the collecting and consuming of nature as the ‘annexation of fresh territory to the Empire of the Known’. Ultimately, the Royal College of Surgeons rebuffed Owen’s request, but he carried this ‘ideal’ of a national natural history collection with him when he left the Hunterian to take the post of superintendent of the British Museum’s natural history collection in 1856 (Rupke, 2009: 21–22). There he continued to advocate for a dedicated natural history collection, arguing in 1862 that England, as ‘the greatest commercial and colonizing empire of the world’, must ennoble itself with the ‘material symbol’ of progress that a natural history museum would embody (Owen 1862: 126). His mission, subtly furthered by Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World, was fulfilled at long last in 1881 when the British Museum unveiled a dedicated natural history museum in South Kensington.

By emphasising the English locales in which these fossils were found and the English men and women who discovered them (Doyle, 2008: 201), Owen’s guidebook made implicit statements about the indigeneity of these ‘pre-Adamite’ animal remains. The revelation that many of these creatures had been exhumed mere miles away inflected Hawkins’ claim about displaying these creatures in their ‘native state’ with a nationalistic note (MacDermott, 1854: 20). A similar claim could be made regarding the materials used for his reconstructions, which were ‘composed of Portland cement’, a binding agent named for its likeness to the fossil-rich stone quarried on the Isle of Portland in Dorset (Adams 1857: 87). Moreover, the geological strata of the Crystal Palace exhibit had a particularly strong claim to autochthony, for David Thomas Ansted insisted that his geological section must display the actual type of geological formations it described rather than simply modelling them. And so he had several tons of stone shipped to Sydenham, bringing in, for example, limestone from Yorkshire and sandstone from Bristol (Piggott, 2004: 164). The historical Fine Arts Courts within the palace had to be imported. But the geological section was a national product through and through. Both the intellects and the resources that produced it were of English or imperial extraction.

The entire geological section would have been impossible but for Britain’s recent industrialisation. The ships and railways that imported the materials, the cement and iron with which Hawkins built his models, and the extractive industries that contributed to major fossil finds were all hallmarks of the industrial age. Most significant to the practice of Victorian geology was the expansion of Britain’s infrastructure. Canal building and railway construction, which required engineers to dig deep into the earth, exposed new geological formations to which geologists flocked (Freeman, 2004: 43–44). The public, too, relied on this infrastructure for access to geological information; the majority of visitors to the palace and park arrived by railway lines, some of which were built exclusively for the Crystal Palace (Piggott, 2004: 60). In recognition of their debt to the industrial age, the designers of the geological section incorporated it into their exhibit. According to the linear organisation of the Crystal Palace, the bottom limits of the park were to display the oldest and most remote geological strata (Doyle and Robinson, 1993: 182–193). Here was installed a coal formation and the limestone that Ansted had brought in from Yorkshire. Within the limestone were two simulated veins of lead and beneath them in a chamber constructed for the purpose, ‘a faithfully correct model of the Matlock lead mine in Derbyshire’ (MacDermott, 1854: 202). By modelling how the earth’s ancient matter had been commoditised by this industrial nation, the exhibit collapsed geological and human temporalities. It demonstrated humanity’s control over the environment as well as its mastery of the past, for the coal with which Britain fuelled its expansion and the other extracted minerals on which its growing infrastructure depended were material traces of past worlds. Thus the geological section of the Crystal Palace, while educating the public on the geological formations and inhabitants of an antediluvian world, at the same time celebrated the scale and might of modernity.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191102/003