Dippy on Tour: transporting Britain’s most famous dinosaur

Main Image: Dippy arrives in Dorset from the Natural History Museum to start his tour at Dorset County Museum

Dippy the Diplodocus has begun a three-year tour of the UK, the first since being installed in the Natural History Museum (NHM) in 1905. It is hoped that touring the UK’s most famous dinosaur will attract 1.5m visitors and provide the eight host venues with the opportunity to offer new interpretation as well as learning programmes for thousands of schoolchildren

As Dippy arrived at his temporary home at Dorset County Museum in Dorcester at the beginning of February he would have felt right at home with its location on the Jurassic Coast where nearby fossils help to show how life adapted and changed over 185 million years, including those from his early dinosaur and pterosaur cousins.

Dippy made his way to the south coast in style in his own high tech fleet under the stewardship of one of the most trusted Fine Art agents in the UK, Williams & Hill (W&H), who will be supporting Dippy on Tour across all locations in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and five regions across England for free.

Dorset County Museum is the first destination for Dippy on Tour. Branded Vehicles courtesy of Williams & Hill. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London [2018]. All rights reserved

W&H is a family run company who have built a reputation over the past 15 years, grown from a shared appreciation of art and good service, that has enabled them to become renowned for excellence and firmly establishing themselves as the leading ‘Specialised Transport of Fine Art, Antiques, Design Furniture and Decorative Objects’.

Last year W&H saw the opportunity to support the NHM’s Dippy on Tour with company directors, Cliff Williams and Kerry Hill, both feeling it would be a great opportunity to give something back to the community.

“To enable the nation to marvel at Dippy as he ventures to new and exciting places fills us with great pride,” says Kerry Hill, company director. “We started having conversations last year and we had to show that Williams & Hill had proven experience in the transport of fragile and valuable artefacts with employees recognised and trained in the handling of such material and be able to meet the conditions of the Government Indemnity Scheme.”

With 292 bones, Dippy’s full skeleton is 21.3m long, 4.3m wide and 4.25m high and took two van loads of carefully packed cases to transport him the approximately 160km from London to Dorset. The cases varied in size from 139cmL x 139W x 191H to 333L x73W x231H. Before that could take place, however, the packing, transportation and logistics of the tour had to be carefully planned for.

Dippy's first stop on an eight venue tour is at Dorset County Museum

With a team of highly experienced staff and a modern fleet of vehicles W&H’s main concern was to ensure it completed the service to the desired standard. This involved multiple planning meetings, discussing health and safety, security, insurance and contingency plans for every eventuality. With each venue having its own set of delivery issues, with Dorset being the most difficult because of limited road access, and different venue sizes, no two stops would be the same.

W&H’s insurance company was involved with all of the discussions they worked to Government Indemnity Scheme guidelines and with its adviser to ensure all of its security and safety procedures met their standard.

W&H had two people handling the management of the project, offering advice and assistance when required and the NHM took care of the packing and crating of Dippy, but because of the size and weight of the cases, it was agreed that W&H would take care of the handling and transport.

“We used specialist software to help decide the safest loading order, while meeting the NHM’s request for the cases to be delivered in a certain order,” says Hill. “Essentially it was a very large jigsaw puzzle. On site, we assisted with the unloading and placement of the cases, with the NHM staff taking care of the uncasing and assembly of Dippy.”

With 292 bones, it took two van loads of carefully packed cases to transport Dippy 160km from London to Dorchester

Hill says that the success of the project has been the result of the close relationship his company has had with the museum. He says the museum staff, although fully conversant with the museum’s requirements, were always prepared to consider new ideas or suggestions that would benefit the whole project.

“They had multiple people dealing with different elements of moving Dippy, from the contractual side, through to the insurance and the final installation. This would normally make a project quite difficult, but their professionalism made each segment seamless. The tour having multiple venues is a new challenge for us but having dealt with large projects and exhibitions over the past 15 years, we approach each new venue as a new project and applied the experience garnered from the previous venues to improve and bolster our service.”

The NHM announced plans to take Dippy on tour in July 2015 and put out an open call to venues the following September. With the beginning the tour set for 2018 this gave the museum time to plan not only an educational programme but also the chance for conservation. In January 2017 the diplodocus was dismantled from its home in Hintze Hall and shipped to Toronto, Canada for the production and fitting of a new mount and base.  This involved using the latest research to ensure that the cast was as accurate as it could be for its first tour and included the replacement of its front feet to front hands. The restored plaster and resin cast is now a thoroughly modern, 21st century, version of Dippy with a new mount and base ready for touring.

“The safe transport of Dippy around the UK to each of the eight venues is a very important part of the tour planning,” says Lorraine Cornish, Head of Conservation at the Natural History Museum. “The teams involved including Williams and Hill have been very professional in their approach resulting in the successful delivery of our iconic dinosaur to the first venue in Dorset. Dippy’s natural history adventure has now well and truly begun!”

Dippy on Tour - connecting the UK with local nature

Dippy will act as a hook for visitors to explore the UK’s natural history past, present and future. Each location will have a unique story that plays to the strengths of the regions’ collections and scientific research. The programme will also be more than just visits to museums as it includes outdoor activities to encourage children to connect with nature outdoors. The Natural History Museum has also produced school resources that reflect these aims and feature star specimens from the museums associated with the tour.

The project team, says Cornish, includes security specialists, conservators and registrars who have worked with the Dippy Tour Co-ordinator to review the venues and set appropriate contractual terms for display. The Arts Council National Security Adviser has also been involved in assessing the security of all venues. Each time Dippy arrives at a new home it is condition checked by the museum’s conservation team who work with a highly experienced technical crew to install the Dippy skeleton parts and base. The condition reporting process is undertaken again when Dippy is deinstalled prior to being packed and transported to the next venue.

“When the NHM tour items for exhibition from our collections it is important we work with professional transportation agents such as Williams & Hill who can provide a high level of care. Working with appropriate professionals helps us ensure that Dippy arrives safely and will look fabulous at each of the venues on the tour.”

Lorraine Cornish, head of conservation at the Natural History Museum, attends to Dippy's skull at Dorset County Museum

But equally important for the NHM is ensuring that once Dippy is in place at a host venue there is a well thought out programme of events and interpretation that challenges the way people think about the natural world past, present and future – Dippy is a hook for a myriad of stories and engagement opportunities.

The NHM has given the tour venues grants to support their engagement programme and additional grants to support their marketing communication to maximise their visitor numbers and participation beyond seeing Dippy. Each venue will have bespoke support depending on their needs to ensure the success of Dippy on Tour within their region. In Dorset this includes the NHM’s retail team supporting the redevelopment of their shop, so they can make the most of retail income during Dippy’s stay and also improve their expertise for the future.

The Natural History Museum's retail team have been heavily involved in helping to redevelop Dorset County Museum’s shop

“We are offering bespoke support to each partner to ensure there’s a legacy for Dippy on Tour,” says Katrina Nilsson, Head of National Programmes at the Natural History Museum says. “Yes, we want Dippy on Tour to be a successful visitor experience, which is why our Head of Visitor Experience manager has advised on queuing and visitor flow. But it’s also about making organisations more resilient. Our retail team have been heavily involved in helping to redevelop Dorset County Museum’s shop. In addition we have worked with Dorset County Museum’s programme partner the Jurassic Coast Trust on a Natural History Adventure leaflet to ensure the extensive programmes across the Jurassic Coast are promoted and excitement and engagement connected to Dippy on Tour infiltrates the entire region. This gives visitors the opportunity to extend or initiate their engagement with nature beyond Dippy in Dorset County Museum. We really hope these region-wide partnerships will take on new forms after the tour. It’s this extended programme and potential for impact far beyond Dorset County Museum that really excited our lead partner the Garfield Weston Foundation.”

The high-profile nature of the tour has given the chosen eight venues an opportunity to raise the profile of their organisations and also their collections and Gabriella Crouch, the Development Manager at Dorset County Museum, says she felt that without question hosting Dippy would be of major benefit to the museum and its redevelopment plans.

“It will substantially raise our profile, people’s awareness of our internationally significant geological and paleontological collections, and what we hope to achieve through the Tomorrow’s Museum for Dorset redevelopment project,” she says. “It would significantly increase visitor numbers (an anticipated 70,000 over four months) and the take up of our existing natural sciences learning offer, while also giving us the opportunity to work with the Natural History Museum to strengthen our learning, cultural tourism and marketing offers.”

Dippy on Tour in Dorset is an opportunity for the people of Dorset and the wider South West region to see the well-known and much-loved specimen outside of London and Crouch believes Dippy will bring a much broader and diverse audience to Dorset County Museum in the next few months.

“We have curated a temporary exhibition on the mezzanine of the Victorian Hall at Dorset County Museum to accompany the installation of Dippy and an accompanying exhibition of palaeoart by modern and active palaeoartists in our temporary exhibition space, adjacent to the Victorian Hall. These exhibitions explore our theme of ‘Naturally Curious’ by discovering how science, passion, creativity and imagination have allowed our species to comprehend nature in detailed and amazing ways. These universal ideas are grounded in local stories, including the deep connection between the science of palaeontology, Dorset and the Jurassic Coast.”

Finishing touches being made to the installation of Dippy at Dorset County Museum

The museum has also devised an extensive accompanying educational programme, which has now sold out to schools and will be welcoming more than 6,000 pupils from schools across the South West into the museum to engage with Dippy and the natural world.

School sessions will include a delivered session in the Victorian Hall around Dippy, a hands-on fossil excavation and creative craft activities. Crouch says these sessions will help pupils understand where Dippy comes from and why Dippy is at the Dorset County Museum.

“Pupils will consider the challenges we face such as climate change, and explore our relationship with the natural world and the importance of evolution using our own Alfred Russel Wallace collection, who was a key figure in helping develop the theory of evolution (KS2). They will have an opportunity to handle and examine a range of real fossils (animals and plants) and get an understanding of the fossilisation process and the role of a palaeontologist.”

It is hoped that pupils will leave the museum with an understanding of how plants and animals have developed over thousands of years and understand how and why fossils end up in a museum like Dorset County Museum. Not only that, but Crouch believes hosting Dippy will have a long lasting effect on the museum itself.

“Being a host venue for Dippy on Tour represents a significant milestone in the history of the museum’s redevelopment project – showcasing the type of impactful, nationally recognised exhibition which we will be able to do much more frequently in the future.”

Dippy will be at Dorset County Museum until 7 May and then the W&H team will once again be in action to transport the diplodocus to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery where it will be on show from 26 May to 9 September.

Although the final destination on the current tour is at Norwich Cathedral, from 11 July to 31 October 2020, the NHM are still discussing a number of opportunities for Dippy to engage audiences beyond this. And with the potential impact of the tour on Dorset County Museum and the other seven venues being so great, Dippy’s charm may well be experienced by many more visitors in the future.