Crystal Palace, Dinosaurs, and Exhibition Road

Last week, I visited the Dinosaur Park in London’s Crystal Palace Park. Not half as awe-inspiring as the Jurassic Park rendition, this odd and adorable collection of extinct animals, or animals that perhaps never existed outside the imagination of a few scientists and sculptors in the mid-19th century, was opened in 1854, making it the first of its kind in the world.

It was born into hectic times for the history of modern science and biology. With the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species just around the corner, and in the context of an exponentially rising public interest in the natural sciences, the discussion and visualization of dinosaurs in conjunction with new theories on biological evolution, was received instant critical acclaim from the press.

Sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had modeled his creations under close supervision of biologist Richard Owen, so that this was much more a park of science visualization than an entertainment theme park. It became a popular attraction none the less, because the gigantic lizards from the distant past were a novelty, and a mesmerizing thought. So much did the dinosaur as a concept and image enter the public imagination, that Charles Dickens started one of his novels with the sentence:

Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Richard Owen, a hugely successful, if controversial, natural scientist in the public eye, also advocated that natural historical specimens that were stored in the British Museum, should be presented in a museum specifically dedicated to natural history, and in 1881, London’s Natural History Museum was inaugurated.

The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is part of an interrelated complex of cultural and educational institutions around Exhibition Road, referred to as „Albertopolis“ in the 19th century, which also comprises the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, Imperial College, the Royal College of Music, all of which and more were launched by Prince Albert, prince consort to Queen Victoria, in the period immediately following the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This brings us back to Crystal Palace, where that Exhibition took place. World Exhibitions held to showcase the progress of science and industrial advance were an important, much-anticipated and feted feature of the 19th century’s cultural life in the industrialized nations. The Crystal Palace was a temporary structure erected to host the 1851 exhibition in Hyde Park. Designed by Joseph Paxton, this building, which was made entirely of glass, was some 564m long and 39m high, and provided a total of 92,000 sqm of exhibition space for more than 14,000 exhibitors. Exhibits included an early facsimile machine, daguerreotypes, telegraphy, and the first flushable lavatories.

As if all this wasn’t brazen enough, after the six month exhibition ended, the exhibition building was—of course—removed from Hyde Park, and transported to Penge Common, where it was built up from its parts in a structure completely different from the original. The reconstruction was recorded photographically for posterity, and pictures widely distributed. In 1854, Queen Victoria again performed an opening ceremony.

Although it looks like no expense was spared here and that this exhibition might have left the budgets somewhat drained, the opposite was recorded (although, as an aside, the human toll was probably rather huge, but unreported). A substantial profit was made from the exhibition, and the surplus in the budget was used to purchase some land in South Kensington, and commission the creation of this “Albertopolis” (the term being perhaps a tad satirical) of London’s most high-profile museums and learned institutions. Hence the apellation “Exhibition Road” for that dazzlingly elegant road in Kensington.

Now that the wondrous Crystal Palace had been relocated to South London to the Penge and Sydenham area, which received its very own railway station and was henceforth referred to as simply Crystal Palace, North Londoners felt that a fitting counterpart for London’s North was in order. This is how Alexandra Palace was born, a “palace of the people”, erected in 1863 from a building that had also been used for a world exhibition beforehand. As the centrepiece of Alexandra Park in Harringey, it was a grand public arts and entertainment center named after Alexandra of Denmark, who had married prince Edward earlier that year. The Alexandra Palace was destroyed by a fire in 1873 and, in typical Victorian vigor, repaired and re-opened for the spring of 1875.

As for Crystal Palace in South London, after numerous crises and problems with its upkeep, in 1936, it caught fire and burnt down entirely in just a few hours. 400 firemen could not check the fire, and the flames were seen across 8 counties. In just a few hours, it was completely destroyed. 100,000 people came to Sydenham Hill to watch the blaze, among them Winston Churchill, who said, „This is the end of an age“.