Site unseen Dinosaurs in Crystal Palace
Friday 13 January 1995
The park is one of London's great attractions, from the railway station which stands on two different levels to the remnants of the great Crystal Palace itself, which sadly burnt down in 1936. A bust of Sir Joseph Paxton, the man who designed the original building for the Great Exhibition of 1851, serenely surveys the scene.
Nothing, however, beats the surprise of visiting the park for the first time, rounding a corner and seeing a prehistoric monster rear up at you. You might think that this is some kind of tatty Disney spin-off: we couldn't get Bambi or the Lion King so have these instead.
An unworthy thought. What we have here are 26 monsters which were constructed in the middle of the 19th century under the guidance of Professor Sir Richard Owen, the first head of the Natural History Museum - in other words, we are talking academic respectability and not rip-off.
Owen was one of those great Victorians who was formidably learned but did not shy away from popularisation or publicity. In 1861, when he was working as the superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum, he took Prime Minister Gladstone on a tour of his domain, showing him the impossibly cramped conditions in which his staff laboured.
Gladstone duly became a formidable advocate of the need for a separate Natural History Museum, which finally opened to the public in 1881 - a delay which suggests that the new British Library is not doing too badly after all.
The Crystal Palace monsters are made of brick and iron. They are indeed life-size, so big in fact that a feast for 21 gentlemen was held in the stomach of the iguanadon on New Year's Eve, 1853, in order to celebrate the monsters' completion.
I would not mind betting that Spielberg has no idea that it was Owen who was responsible for creating the word "dinosaur". I reckon that Owen's descendants are entitled to claim a share of the profits from Jurassic Park.
The prehistoric monsters are in the southern corner of Crystal Palace Park, alongside the Tidal Lake.
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