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Inspired by Dippy

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In August 1967, when I was 2 months short of my 7th birthday, I found some strange ‘patterned stones’ in the family garden near Cheltenham. My dad told me that they were fossils and, from that day on, I was hooked. In 1968 he promised to take me to the Natural History Museum in London, on condition that I learned my ‘times tables’ first. The great day arrived, 28th April 1968, and that is when I encountered Dippy for the first time. He wasn’t in the entrance hall at that time (he didn’t move there until 1979), but in the Reptile Gallery nearby (now a café I think) where he had resided since arriving in 1905. My visit to that gallery made quite an impression on me and I still vividly remember some of the other exhibits, such as a partial T. rex skeleton mounted against the wall and an enormous fossil tortoise shell. However, it wasn’t until 3 weeks later, on 20th May 1968, that I did a drawing of Dippy while I was at school. Clearly I was quite taken by the neural spines on the tail, and I don’t think my rendition of the head was too bad – especially considering how much higher off the ground it was than the head of a 7-year old boy! You can judge for yourself how accurate my attempt was when you visit Dippy on Tour yourself. Fortunately my dad dated that drawing (20th May 1968) and kept it aside, along with some of my earlier schoolwork and my (often not very good) school reports. I had long forgotten the very existence of this drawing until rummaging through one of my boxes of schoolwork late in 2015. We had, just a couple of months previously, received word that Ulster Museum would be one of the chosen venues for Dippy on Tour so you can imagine my reaction as I gazed on that drawing for the first time in decades.

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For years after that first visit to the NHM my ambition was to be a geologist and to work in a museum or, better still, to own one! As a schoolboy in the mid- to late-1970s I volunteered at Gloucester Museum, identifying many of their Jurassic ammonites and other fossils, and I visited various curators in the newly opened Department of Palaeontology at the NHM. At their invitation I brought in various unusual fossils that I had found, one of which proved to be a fossil tooth of a new species of chimaeroid fish that later was named Eomanodon simmsi. In the mid-1980s I developed even closer links with the NHM since my Ph.D. was a joint award between Birmingham University and the NHM, so I was a regular visitor to the place.

An intriguing aspect of the drawing is my depiction of the neural spines along the tail. Why did I put so much more effort into drawing those than the rest of the skeleton? As a geology student and then a qualified palaeontologist I had barely given poor old Dippy a second glance as I walked past him on many occasions in the ‘ 70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but I never noticed those neural spines until prompted by the rediscovery of my drawing in 2015. It just goes to show how children often see much more than adults even when they are looking at exactly the same thing!

In more recent years my research interests have moved into other areas of geology, although I still have a great fondness for fossils. I have many fond memories of numerous visits to the NHM over almost 50 years, and I still consider the marine reptile gallery, full of skeletons of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs, at the NHM as my favourite museum gallery anywhere in the world!

As a 7-year old boy I don’t think I could ever have imagined that 50 years on I would find myself as the lead curator of an exhibition based around the very same dinosaur with which I was so awestruck in 1968, and that my drawing from all those years ago (and a cartoon character based on my 7-year old self) would feature so prominently in that exhibition.

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