Delving in to Dippy – using the Archives to research our favourite colleague | Library and Archives

For Explore Your Archive Week Jordan Risebury-Crisp, Internal Communications Officer at the Museum, recalls how the Hintze Hall redevelopment prompted his own adventure in to the Museum’s past.

The Museum has seen a number of changes in the last few years. In 2015 it was announced that the much beloved and iconic Diplodocus cast, affectionately called Dippy, was to be removed from his position in the Museum’s Hintze Hall where he had stood proudly on display, greeting visitors as they arrived at the Museum for over four decades.

Black and white photograph of the Hintze Hall, taken from the main staircase looking toward the main entrance. Four lines of glass display cabinets line the main floor leading from the stairs towards the entrance. The specimen nearest the photographer on the second row is an adult adult and is facing away towards the entrance.
View of Hintze Hall looking South towards the main entrance, 1919 (PH/3/1/1827)

Following Dippy’s departure the entire hall would then undergo a multi-million pound transformation, involving renovation, re-imagining of displays and bringing our Museum into the 21st century; a tough feat to accomplish considering the hall has been open to the public from 1881.

I’ve only been at the Museum since 2012, a fleeting breath in the grand timescale of the place, but from my time here so far, working in the galleries and behind the scenes, there’s no escaping the importance of history everywhere you look. These recent changes prompted me to find out more about both Dippy and the hall itself and if possible, share these discoveries with my colleagues.

Colour photograph taken of the Hintze Hall during the 1980s, the photographer is standing with their back to the main entrance. The large diplodocus model sits along the centre of the hall facing the photographer on a raised platform, with its tail on the floor. To the bottom left in front of this model are two glass display cases and the top half of a Museum visitor information board. Various displays are visible in the Hintze Hall bays but are too far away to determine their content.
Hintze Hall during the 1980s (PH/3/7/32)

For Dippy, I knew some of the facts behind the cast; that it was originally a donation from Scottish born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and that the cast was unveiled in 1905, but beyond that, I was clueless.

I discovered that the Museum had published a book on Dippy in 2010, which was useful, but it didn’t go too deep into the discovery of the original specimen and how a cast of said specimen found itself on display in London for over 100 years.

Black and white photograph showing the official presentation event in the former Reptile Gallery. The Diplodocus cast is on a low plinth along the centre of the room facing away from the photographer. The model is surrounded by a large amount of staff and dignitaries (may be more than 200), some sitting and some standing. No specific individual can be made out from the crowd, with those nearest to the photographer standing with their back facing and in morning suits.
The presentation of the Diplodocus cast (Lord Avebury speaking) on 12 May 1905 (PH/3/1/807)

I then contacted the Museum Archives team. I used the online archives catalogue and searched under certain keywords (Diplodocus and Carnegie being two of the obvious ones) and requested to view the results. I promptly got a response saying the materials would be made available for me to view in the reading room of the Museum’s Library. I hadn’t done this sort of historic research before, so wasn’t sure what to expect.

Paper plan showing the floor layout of the proposed central hall of the British Museum (Natural History), now the Natural History Museum. The plan is dated 1879 two years before the building opened. The plan shows the space labelled as the Index Museum and includes hand written ink notes for the contents of each specimen bay.
Plan of the proposed Index Museum by Richard Owen 1879 (DF BDG/2/14)

The materials I had requested turned out to be tomes of bound (mainly handwritten) correspondence and reports from the Museum employees of the past, as well as letters the Museum received at the time that were deemed of any significance, and carbon copies of our responses. Once I understood what was here, I was able to piece together the original exchanges between the Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, who contacted the Museum on behalf of Andrew Carnegie saying that they would like to give us an over 80-foot (25 metre) long dinosaur.

Details on how the replica cast would be produced, shipped, assembled and displayed were exchanged via a series of letters over four years, letters that probably took at least a fortnight to arrive after shipping across the Atlantic by steamboat. The story of how we acquired Dippy was laid out before me.

Black and white photograph taken of the Hintze Hall, there is a slightly misty atmosphere to the image. The photographer is standing on the upper level of the west side of the main staircase, looking towards the front entrance. The only visible specimen on display is the 15 metre skeleton of a sperm whale which can be seen low to the ground in the centre of the room, facing away from the photographer. Only the bays to the left of the photo can be seen and they look to have empty upright specimen cases in them. The bay nearest to the photographer has been partially obscured by white sheeting high enough from the ground to not allow people to look over.
Hintze Hall in 1882 (PH/3/1/53)

It took a couple of visits to the reading room to transcribe all of the relevant letters, as well as to read through other material that had also been preserved, such as an original invitation to the unveiling of the cast and newspaper clippings of the event itself. Once I had completed my research I then investigated the best way to share them.

I sent the transcriptions to the Editor of evolve, the Museum’s Members magazine and she instantly loved the idea of running a feature highlighting the key events in Dippy’s arrival to the Museum. With careful editing we were able to distil the essential elements of the story down to 2,000 words. Fortunately I was also able to share an extended version with our staff via our Museum intranet, as well as an article in the staff magazine on the individuals behind Dippy’s journey to South Kensington.

In early 2017, I was planning what events we could hold and what aspects we could include in our communication plan around the hall transformation. Our team wanted to publish a special Waterhouse Times (an internal magazine for staff) focusing on the new specimens and the works taking place to the hall during the first half of 2017, but I also wanted to put the hall in the correct context and share the story of the hall before these current works took place.

The story of the Museum architect was already well known, but as the hall was undergoing a transformation, I wanted to investigate if it had gone through similar changes in the past and for this, I asked to look at the Museum’s historic Photograph Collection.

An image from 1881 showcasing the hall just after the Museum opened is regularly used by our publishing and social media team. The monochrome photo in question shows a grand empty room with some visitors sat to one side. The photo was a vast contrast to how the hall was in recent years with 100s of visitors everywhere, specimens in all of the bays and, since 1979, the aforementioned Dippy. Through the Museum Archives, I requested to see all of the archive images that were on file that featured the hall and I was pleasantly surprised by the findings.

Sepia photograph taken from the from the direction of the main entrance looking into the hall. The space is clear of any exhibits or people, except for two benches on either side. There are two people sitting on the right near side bench and one on the left hand far side.
Hintze Hall in 1882 (PH/3/1/52)

Consisting mainly of black and white or sepia prints, the photographs track the evolution of the displays in the hall from 1881 up until the present day. Unlike my previous archive adventure, further investigation was required for some of the photos in order to verify the dates they were taken. As the architecture hasn’t changed in the last 136 years, you could visualise exactly where these specimens once stood and where these photos were taken.

The transformed hall was scheduled to open in mid-July 2017. As lead up to the launch, our social media team asked if they could share some of the images I had discovered via their channels. In The Waterhouse Times, we also produced a visual timeline of the evolution of the hall from opening until today, providing a reminder that change is inevitable, even after multi-million pound renovations.

As a resource, our Library and Archives are invaluable; the wealth of knowledge carefully collected, catalogued and preserved for all. It is a wonder to discover not only for myself and by academics, but by anyone with an interest in understanding our past.

Black and white photograph taken in about 1975, photographer was standing to the right (west) of the main staircase and facing into the centre of Hintze Hall, looking towards the main entrance. The central focus is a large white raised display unit, with four steps in the middle. The left hand side of the display is slightly higher and on top can be clearly seen two adult rhinoceros and in the middle of them a young calf. On the right hand side corner facing the photographer are two hippopotamus, a young one and an adult with it's mouth open wide. Behind on the rear right and facing away from the photographer can be seen, an adult elephant on the left and a very small young calf to it's right. Rising up from the centre of the display are four very tall panels topped off with an octagonal shaped top. The four steps lead visitors up and through this paneled display. Text can be seen on the inside of the panels.
Hintze Hall (circa 1975) with it’s central rhino and hippo display (PH/3/7/23/3)


2 Replies to “Delving in to Dippy – using the Archives to research our favourite colleague | Library and Archives”

  1. Very interesting.

    Can an “outsider” gain access to any of the articles produced?

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