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

Nationalism at the Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, which opened in June 1854, allowed for the imagined annexation of deep time, for it was in the geological section in the park grounds that the public first came face to face with former worlds.[2] While naturalists had for a few decades been rendering scenes of prehistoric animals and environments, the full-scale models of extinct animals, or ‘antediluvians’, designed and built by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins were the first attempt to reconstruct in sculpture a past to which no humans were witness (Peck, 2008, 68–69). A close reading of the geological and palaeontological information presented there alongside the ways in which the public, the press and even the Queen herself engaged with these innovative models, reveals that this second Crystal Palace functioned as a discursive site of exchange between deep past and present. Naturalists imported former worlds into the nineteenth century for the benefit of public edification, but the concerns of the present simultaneously colonised the past. Ultimately, though, the discourse was unbalanced. Through guidebooks and press reports, Victorians visiting the Crystal Palace were encouraged to push back against the overwhelming scale of geological history by relating to the animals and minerals of deep time in terms of contemporary national borders and human affairs. Moreover, naturalists and their audiences celebrated geological and palaeontological materials as local resources and capitalised on their economic and intellectual worth, naturalising them just as Dickens had done in the opening lines to Bleak House.

Like the Hyde Park Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, located south of the Thames, was designed to celebrate the advance of Britain and other ‘civilised’ nations. It was hoped that visitors to the grounds would feel compelled to admire the cultural and technological apogee over which Victoria reigned, after consuming the art, science and industry collected in this venue. Though a private venture overseen by the newly incorporated Crystal Palace Company, this permanent palace at Sydenham echoed the ideals and aims of the earlier, nationally funded exhibition. An article in The Times observed that the Crystal Palace ‘aspires to be, and is recognised, as national’ (Piggott, 2004). Queen Victoria assented to this unofficial affiliation by presiding over the opening ceremonies on 10 June 1854, just as she had done in 1851.

Designed by Joseph Paxton to imitate a botanical conservatory, the new glass palace perched upon a hilltop overlooked pastoral Surrey and Kent on one side, the buildings of London on the other. The panoply of exhibits it contained would have astounded even those visitors who had previously witnessed the Great Exhibition. There were natural history and ethnological displays alongside industrial exhibits celebrating advances in machinery, furniture making, perfumery and textiles. The portraiture, sculpture and architectural reconstructions were to be appreciated for both their aesthetic and didactic qualities. The palace grounds presented still more wonders. The waterworks and manicured gardens just outside the glass building demonstrated a domesticated nature, while the geological section situated at the very bottom of the park invited visitors to learn about an untamed antediluvian world through models of extinct animals and displays of geological stratification. This final exhibit claimed to illustrate the ‘native state’ of England and its animal inhabitants. Located at the very edge of the park, geological strata and replicas of the extractive industries that monetised the minerals discovered in these rocks revealed the resources that funded and fuelled imperial power (MacDermott, 1854: 176–178).

The goal of the geological section aligned with that of the palace in general, to communicate ‘a divinely ordained model of progress culminating in the Victorian period’. Moreover, palace and park designer Joseph Paxton and his collaborators, including geologist David Thomas Ansted and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the naturalist and artist who sculpted the extinct models, hoped that visitors would leave their exhibit recognising ‘the wondrous diversity of God’s universe’ (MacDermott, 1854: 20). By referring to these extinct animals as ‘antediluvian monsters’ and ‘pre-Adamite beasts’, Hawkins and Richard Owen, who was brought in at a late stage to lend credence to the exhibit through his well-known name and reputation as a comparative anatomist, museum curator and public promoter of science, situated these creatures within a Judeo-Christian narrative, as did many other nineteenth-century naturalists (Secord, 2004: 154-5). Ansted and Hawkins augmented this rhetorical relationship by positioning the fearsome reconstructions upon stratified islands in a lake, which was intended to suggest the biblical flood. The figurative and visual links to Genesis ‘embedded the creatures in a biblical temporality’ familiar to most visitors (Marshall, 2007: 295). Prior to this exhibition, encounters with lost worlds had been reserved for those who studied extinct animals. As Martin Rudwick (2010: 1–2) explains, naturalists had ‘developed a conceptual time-machine’ that allowed these privileged few to ‘burst the limits of time’. The geological section of the Crystal Palace instead offered a more egalitarian form of time travel. Here any Londoner able to afford the entrance fee could spend an afternoon strolling through an English park as it was imagined to have looked during previous geological periods.[3]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191102/002