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Museums are Vital Institutions

Dippy the dinosaur in the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall. Photograph: Alex Segre /Alamy. Source: The Guardian.

Kate Williams, Forget finance, tech and sport – our museums show Britain at its best, The Guardian, 1 February 2015

Reaction to the removal of the Natural History Museum’s Dippy highlights our affection for these vital institutions.

In 1898, a group of construction workers on a railroad in Wyoming thought they’d hit a stone. Instead, they’d found the fossilised bones of a diplodocus. “Most colossal animal ever on Earth,” shrieked the headlines. The Fife-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie fell in love with the beast – and went on a mission to make it the most famous dinosaur in the world.

America was gripped by bone fever. Keen to be the winner of The Great Dinosaur Rush, Carnegie took the skeleton to his Pittsburgh museum. It was dubbed Diplodocus carnegii in honour of him and casts were sold to museums across the world. Edward VII saw a sketch while visiting Carnegie in Scotland and expressed a desire for one for South Kensington. The dinosaur cast arrived in 36 boxes and was shown to the public in a ceremony in May 1905. But African elephants dominated the entrance hall; it wasn’t until 1979 that Dippy moved to take prime position.

Scroll forwards 100 years and Dippy has created a media frenzy again. When the news broke last week that he was going to be moved from his prime position in the entrance hall of the National History Museum and replaced by a 98ft blue whale skeleton, there was an outcry.

“UK’s biggest controversy today is over a fake dinosaur,” noted American ABC News, slightly baffled. A petition on has nearly 30,000 signatures and #savedippy has been trending on Twitter. The pop group Right Said Fred have indicated that their 1992 hit Deeply Dippy could be a campaign song …

So why do we care so much? Why do we worry whether Dippy or a whale is in the main hall? The museum is stuffed with dinosaurs, after all.

We see museums as our possessions, our most important attractions. The modern museum has multiple purposes – to curate and preserve, to research and to reach out to the public. They challenge us and ask us to question our assumptions about the past or the world around us. Even if this does mean moving Dippy.