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We frequently hear, “But these dinosaurs are wrong…”

For “wrong” read “what we think today, right now”.

Yes, some of the statues look nothing like what modern interpretations are for these creatures. More important, some of the statues are built from collections of fossils that now include pieces assigned to quite different animals. If we wanted to create a display of the same organisms today, Crystal Palace Dinosaurs would look very different.

One reason for this simply is incomplete knowledge. What makes the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs so exciting is that these are the first attempts to reconstruct these animals. The fossil material for some was slight: a few pieces. The artist, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins worked hard to get it right. He studied the latest journals. He examined the fossils first hand. He spoke with experts, including Richard Owen (though not only him, as some people think). Because the material was limited, he also included a lot of interpretation and educated extrapolation. For example, without a complete specimen, how do you estimate its size? How do you decide about a piece of the body that simply is missing.

It’s also that all researchers in this period were struggling with analogies for the prehistoric animals. What were dinosaurs LIKE? Were they like reptiles? Or mammals? Or birds? Or something else. This was a tough question and comparative anatomists disagreed, for good reasons. How you answer this question changes how you compose the sculpture.

Waterhouse Hawkins also had problems that a scientist doesn’t. A sculptor needs to decide on many basic questions: how did the animal stand? what kind of expression was on its face? what texture did the skin have? how did body weight shift when it walked?

Seen through the eyes of a historian, “wrong” isn’t the point. We want to know about the choices Waterhouse Hawkins made, and why he made those choices. This isn’t so we can separate fact from guesswork. It’s to gain access to the underlying assumptions and lines of reason based on the evidence at hand. It’s also so we can understand how sculptors and scientists make their interpretations and test them. Waterhouse Hawkins’ decisions about some of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs had critics when they first opened to the public.

The image at the top of this page compares the Megalosaurus statues with a modern interpretation. This was done by Luis V Ray, an award winning paleo-artist (link), who reminds us that the animal we call Megalosaurus is a “grab bag” of animals now thought to be from different species.

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