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Start boning up on Dippy the Dino

The popular dinosaur is leaving its London home, bound for Belfast. Gemma Dunn previews a new documentary about the changeover

By Gemma Dunn

After 38 years in the Natural History Museum's iconic Hintze Hall, it's time for visitors to bid a fond farewell to Dippy the Diplodocus. Yep, the 26-metre-long star attraction, whose replica skeleton arrived in 36 packing cases back in 1905, is to be replaced by that of a huge blue whale, which in turn has been gathering dust in the museum for more than 100 years.

But all is not lost, for the beloved plaster-cast dino, which has nabbed roles in films including Paddington and Night at the Museum 3, is set to inspire a new generation as it travels the length and breadth of the UK from early 2018, arriving at the Ulster Museum in Belfast in September next year.

Making the switch, however, has proved something of a mammoth task - and to document just how super-sized it is, BBC Two's Horizon has spent two years filming behind the scenes footage for a one-off show, Dippy and the Whale. And with Sir David Attenborough narrating, viewers are in for a fascinating ride.

Here, we look at 10 things you need to know about the bold move.

1. Since the Natural History Museum opened in 1881, it has welcomed more than 600 million guests through its doors, and the team of conservators and engineers weren't about to let the "small" task of renovating the hall, where Dippy's 292 bones were taken apart one-by-one, infringe on the fun. In fact, all of the work was carried out without closing the museum to the public.

2. The controversial decision to move Dippy didn't go down well at all, but Richard Sabin, the museum's vertebrates collection manager, is convinced critics will be silenced when they see the skeleton of the world's biggest animal - and one of its most endangered - positioned hanging in a lunge diving pose in the great entrance.

3. Dippy's colossal replacement, which as yet has no nickname, is the genuine skeleton of a young, female blue whale who was found mysteriously beached in Wexford in 1891. The specimen was sold in its entirety at auction for £111, with its skeleton later acquired by the museum for £250 under the premise it was clean and ready for mounting.

4. The world's largest animal, weighing up to 200 tonnes and measuring 30 metres, the blue whale is a sight to behold, but it's been driven to the brink of extinction by hunting, with numbers dwindling from 360,000 to an estimated 12,000. Despite breakthroughs in recent years, the museum is hoping this installation will be a reminder of humanity's delicate relationship with the natural world.

5. When the whale was last put together, with a finish date of February 1934, it took 20 men six months to hang the four-and-a-half-ton whale in a flat pose. With no sign of modern health and safety concerns, the members - four of whom left their signatures under the whale's skull - worked from long ladders and ropes and wore leather aprons and flat caps.

6. Today, Sabin wants the exhibit to reflect how the whales behave in the wild, calling for a frame to suspend the bones of the whale, enabling curvature, its tail to be flexed and its flippers out. The engineering team behind the gigantic steel structure that will hold it all together are those who built the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park.

7. Dismantling the 25-metre specimen, which hasn't been moved in more than 70 years, proved both painstaking and nerve-racking for the experts. It was for Lorraine Cornish, the museum's head of conservation, who has more than 36 years of experience, to oversee the cleaning, caring for, and labelling of every one of the whale's 220 bones. Any weak bones had to be reinforced before removal.

8 Reverse engineering what work was done in 1934, the whale's bones were dismantled over the course of four months, working up from the vertebrae to the skull - the hardest part to manoeuvre due to its size, weight and complexity. To give some idea of the scale, the lower jaw bone of the blue whale is the largest single bone to be grown by any organism on the planet that we know of. To aid the process, a specially designed cradle was built to move the skull without risk and, due to its enormity, it was kept in a secret off-site warehouse.

9. Having called for 3D scans to be made of every bone, a to-scale model was able to be constructed of the whale itself and Hintze Hall. From here, Sabin could perfect the pose and have a blueprint made up of the steelwork. Any replacements - there were a couple of parts of the skeleton discovered missing - could also be recreated via a 3D printer.

10. With full steam ahead, the onus is on Jennifer Flippance, the project manager for the move, to ensure, with the help of 40 experts, the armature and all parts of the whale are in place for the grand unveiling next Thursday.

  • Horizon: Dippy and the Whale, BBC Two, Thursday, 9pm

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