Dippy's mission to save the world
- Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum
He’s not just huge fun, the dinosaur in Norwich Cathedral might help us answer some big questions too.
Why are we here? What can we do about the climate crisis? How did it all begin? Are we heading for extinction? And what’s it got to do with a 116-year-old plaster cast of the bones of an enormous animal which walked the earth 150 million years ago?
Dippy the dinosaur has arrived and the Rev Canon Andy Bryant, who helped bring him here, has high expectations.
“Firstly,” said the man who brought the helter skelter to the cathedral in 2019, “It will be fun. I do want people to have some fun. After the last 18 months we’ve all endured, having a dinosaur in a cathedral will bring us some fun.”
But Canon Andy also believes having a dinosaur in the cathedral for 16 weeks is a chance to celebrate the wonders of the natural world and look for answers to some of the biggest questions facing people today. Local evolutionary biologists, naturalists and climate change activists are all part of Dippy on Tour, a natural history adventure.
"When you are in the presence of a dinosaur it changes how you think about yourself,” he said. "At Norwich Cathedral we are so proud of our 900 years of history but in the history of the planet that’s almost nothing. Homo sapiens, as we know them today, emerged 300,000 years ago. If the history of the world was a 24-hour clock, humans arrive in the last minute. Dinosaurs were around for 200 million years. Dinosaurs were a much more successful evolution than the human being. And if dinosaurs are so successful, what can we learn from them?”
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Dippy arrives at the final venue, and only cathedral, of a (pandemic delayed) national tour, after a century in London’s Natural History Museum. A packed programme of linked events includes activities for families, art and music events and an overarching theme encouraging people to get out into the natural world.
“A dinosaur in the cathedral is a reminder of the wonderful glory of God’s creation,” he said. "It just gets you caught up in the wonder and the mystery and awe of creation. As Christians it invites our awe and wonder at the majesty of creation, and how we need to be better stewards of creation.”
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It’s not quite the elephant in the room, more a dinosaur in the church, but is there any contradiction in a prehistoric animal which lived millions of years before humans arrived standing beneath a roof famously decorated with stories from the Bible, which begins with creation in just six days?
No, says Canon Andy, science and faith are not on opposite sides of a debate and there is no conflict between belief in God and belief in evolution. “Historically faith and science have gone hand-in-hand,” he said. “Many of the great scientists were people of faith. Often they were ordained clergy. There has been a long tradition in Christianity of seeing the stories as written in Genesis as about reflecting on our relationship with God and not taking that literally. In a way it’s been post Darwin we’ve seen some people thinking they want a more literal interpretation.”
And while he respects the feelings of those who hold different views, he said Norwich Cathedral regularly hosts talks by scientists, science-themed events and the thriving Science and Faith in Norfolk group.
He hopes that as well as enjoying meeting Dippy visitors will also be inspired to think through some of the urgent issues confronting the world.
“For us, having Dippy in the building is an ideal time to talk about what we are going to do for our planet, about why are we here, how should we be living, how to ensure we are feeding the world properly, all of these really, really big questions we are facing at the moment.”
Dippy’s environmental mission is at the heart of the programme of tours, talks, concerts, films, storytelling, art and quizzes,
In What has Dippy got to do with Climate Change? members of Extinction Rebellion will explore what the future might hold and why what people do now matters so much. “They helped put the issue of climate change firmly in the news so we can’t ignore it,” said Canon Andy.
Another talk will address species extinction. Although the extinction of dinosaurs is believed to have been triggered by an asteroid impact, a dinosaur is a fascinating backdrop for a discussion of extinctions we might still have time to prevent – including our own.
Dippy will literally loom large over a sessions on everything from bird watching (“Birds are the direct descendants of the age of dinosaurs,” said Canon Andy) to what scientists are still learning about dinosaurs.
A family-friendly session with evolutionary biologist and broadcaster professor Ben Garrod will explore Dippy’s deepest secrets, and there are talks on Norfolk’s Deep History Coast and its hundred million years of history including the earliest known human footprints outside Africa and on the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow this autumn, with beekeeper, ecologist and Bishop of Norwich the Rt Rev Graham Usher.
So what does Canon Andy hope Dippy’s visit will achieve? “A time of fun and a time of reflection to help us think more about the world around us and care for creation.”
A few years ago he wondered how to help people find out more about the world’s greatest collection of church roof bosses. The result was a helter skelter in Norwich Cathedral as part of the hugely successful Seeing it Differently festival. When he saw the Natural History Museum was planning a tour for Dippy he immediately wondered whether the cathedral could get involved. “I can remember it appearing on the 10 o’clock news and saying to my wife that it should come to Norwich Cathedral.” The Dean of Norwich, the Very Rev Jane Hedges had the same thought.
The rest is (pre)history.
Dippy on Tour, a natural history adventure is at Norwich Cathedral from July 13 to October 30. Visits, and many of the events, are free. Full details at cathedral.org.uk