Celebrate the bicentenary of the Natural History Museum’s founder, Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892), and discover more about the man who famously coined the word ‘dinosaur’. A new special display, Richard Owen – The Man Who Invented Dinosaurs, opening on his 200th birthday, will show Owen’s outstanding contribution to science and public learning. Among the many specimens on display will be dawn horses (the dog-sized ancestors to modern horses), not seen by the public for 50 years. Remembered by some as obstinate and at times ruthless, one of Owen’s greatest achievements was to campaign for a national museum of natural wonders, which resulted in the now world-famous Natural History Museum.
The nineteenth century was a time of great exploration and discovery. Animals like the duck-billed platypus and dodo, which were seen as strange and exotic in the nineteenth century, still amaze and fascinate today. Visitors can take a self-guided trail through the Museum that will include specimens Owen worked on such as a Diprotodon skeleton from Australia and a Giant Ground Sloth from Chile. The display and trail will show that Richard Owen achieved much more than inventing dinosaurs. He aimed to inspire people and to unravel the mysteries and wonders of the natural world.
‘Richard Owen was one of the great scientists and educators of his day,’ says Dr Angela Milner, Associate Keeper of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum. ‘He paved the way for the future study of the natural world and without him we would not have the Natural History Museum, a first-class research institution with internationally important collections.’
Owen’s early passion for anatomy developed into a fascination with looking at how animals are put together. He had a gift for being able to reconstruct extinct creatures from even the smallest piece of fossil evidence, a skill that brought him acclaim when he examined a small fragment of bone, only six inches long. By acute observations, he rightly guessed it was part of a leg bone of an ostrich-like bird, and published his findings in 1839. Although some were sceptical, bones found four years later confirmed that Owen was right – he had identified the giant moa, an extinct species from New Zealand. The original moa bone Owen worked on will be on display for the first time since the Natural History Museum opened in 1881.
Such was Owen’s renown in the science world, he was sent all sorts of animal discoveries by explorers and scientists, around the world, and wrote that he ‘embraced every opportunity to excite the interest of lovers of natural history around the world.’ He went on to write and publish scientific work energetically throughout his life, including the first descriptions of many living and extinct animals, such as the nautilus and gorilla.
Passionate about nature, Owen became the first Superintendent of the Natural History Departments of the British Museum in 1856. He campaigned for years to have a museum dedicated to natural history, and his hard work became a reality when the new Natural History Museum was opened in 1881 with Owen as its first director. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, Owen’s ‘cathedral to nature’, with its arched galleries and terracotta carvings, has inspired awe in visitors ever since.
Just like today, new scientific ideas stimulated great debate during Owen’s lifetime. In 1859, when Charles Darwin published Origin of Species exploring the idea of evolution by natural selection it was considered highly controversial. Although this work impressed Owen, like many of his generation he did not believe that evolution could take place in the way Darwin suggested. Two centuries on, scientific research is still at the heart of the Natural History Museum, with over 300 scientists working behind the scenes and influencing lives across the world.
A series of free Darwin Centre Live events will support this display, examining in more detail the man, his controversies and his achievements.
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Notes for editors
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10.00–17.50,
Public enquiries: 020 7942 5000 Monday – Friday
020 7942 5011 Saturday & Sunday
If you would like to interview Angela Milner, request images or further exhibition information, please contact:
Mairi Allan or Becky Chetley
Tel: 020 7942 5156/5654
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (not for publication)
Issued 23 April 2004