This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.
Through the course of my PhD research, I found myself escaping with increasing frequency to parks of different kinds in the cities I made home. These parks were perfect for mid-afternoon reveries and offered up a precious solitary space for contemplating the challenges of the writing process. But there was more to my relationship to them than the pursuit of solitude alone. They formed a site where I could locate and explore questions of place and history. Quite predictably, parks soon turned into areas of study in themselves. This preoccupation led me to identify a curious point of commonality in two parks in particular, in the cities of London and Hyderabad: dinosaurs.
Originally sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and opened to the public between 1853-1954, the dinosaur models of Crystal Palace Park have long been objects of interest for both the passing and the regular visitor. I believe a great part of this has to do with the representational style of the artist, which has been widely studied by scholars who have delved into its connections to deep time, theology and social relations. On my first visit there, I vividly remember being simultaneously confused and captivated by what I saw. Soon enough, I started to devise ways of returning every other week, especially in the summers.
Hyderabad, in recent years, followed a similarly Mesozoic path, albeit driven by different motivations. Almost overnight, and without any introduction, a collection of dinosaur models found their way into a park by the side of a busy thoroughfare. Their surroundings, quite unlike their Victorian counterparts in London, consisted entirely of concrete structures, a feature which instantly supplied the perfect ingredients for a historical spectacle of the now. The park appeared at once to be looking to the past while being squarely located in an urban present. The dinosaurs were gradually being written into the fabric of this space in ways that, for me, necessitated further digging.
The figure of the dinosaur in colonial narratives offers an interesting slant on how we might critically approach ideas of place in parks through the politics of the field of palaeontology. The records that were published during the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries illustrate how the discourse was shaped by the practices and vocabularies of colonialism. The former can be gauged from the representational approaches employed by colonial scientists and the conspicuous absence of any mention of local assistance and contributions from records of fossil discoveries; the Giraffatitan brancai fossil in the Natural History Museum of Berlin is an important example. The latter is visible in the dualistic use of dinosaur allegories: not only were dinosaurs portrayed as ‘masters of the land/earth’ in palaeontological writings, but these metaphors of immensity and domination also travelled together with similar, self-referential descriptions of colonial might.
Given the historical context, and returning now to the dinosaurs of today, the models in Hyderabad have the potential to contribute to commentaries on contemporary questions of society, culture, history, and aesthetics in urban India. The differences between the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace and Hyderabad are better appreciated when framed through the lenses of place and landscape—both urban, yet in different geographical regions, belonging to different periods, and reflective of the political economy of their respective spaces. The Crystal Palace dinosaurs represent a deeply rooted faith in creationism, whereas the motivations underlying the design of the Hyderabad park are different in this regard—in compensating (somewhat) for the lack of a museum of natural history, the park is also an attempt at creating a sense of tangibility and proximity within a continuously transforming urban expanse.
While the very existence of the models in Hyderabad is a testament to the need for an organized approach to practices of pedagogy and museology—possibly through a vernacularization of knowledges—the park also speaks to ideas of locality that reveal how deep time is folded into these stories of urbanness. In effect, the two parks forge personal contact with past lifeforms by tugging in imaginative directions that symbolize the distinctive identities of the Indian and Western metropolis. And as I sit in the shade of a T-Rex in Hyderabad today, which has been an important refuge in recent months, I am reminded, yet again, that my understanding of these spaces is mediated by my encounters with the historical, socio-cultural and political frames of which they are a part.