Dippy the dinosaur and the toilet step

It was a photo in the newspaper which first got me interested in Dippy.

The 70ft long plaster cast replica of the fossilised bones of a Diplocus carnegii dinosaur is currently on display in the Ulster Museum in Belfast as part of a UK tour, and all the hype suggested it was something that kids just had to see.

The images in the papers which launched the exhibition echoed the point. Perfectly groomed primary school children with their mouths open and eyes stretched wide as they encountered the giant dinosaur for the first time.

Now, as a former newspaperman myself, I can be quite cynical about what appears in the printed press. I know the tricks of the trade and the likelihood of the photographers instructing the children to adopt an astonished reaction is quite high. Perhaps the image was taken a few times until the persistent snapper got exactly the shot he or she wanted.

But this was not the occasion to be sceptical. My wee man loves dinosaurs. He has a large collection of dino toys and already knows the name of more prehistoric animals than I ever will. He regularly compiles lists of his favourite dinosaurs (as of yesterday the roll of honour was 1 brontosaurus, 2 T-Rex 3 stegosaurus).

And here was an opportunity where the most viewed set of dinosaur bones in the world were just down the road. When I told him last week about Dippy I said it was something we had to see because he would remember if for the rest of his life. I promised him that we would go soon.

Mummy was off work yesterday so we decided to surprise him with a visit to the museum after school. The three of us chatted excitedly on the way about what we were about to witness.

The museum has worked hard to make it an unforgettable experience for young visitors. As soon as you enter the building friendly staff members give kids ‘I’ve seen Dippy’ stickers and there are green dino footprints and signs erected pointing the way. In the waiting room, next to the hall where Dippy is on display, there are little peepholes where young ones can have a sneaky peek before they are admitted.

Soon it was our turn. My wee man ran and bounced into the room. He spent a few seconds gazing upon the majesty of the huge collection of dinosaur bones which dominated the space, then he turned to us, smiled sweetly and said…

‘OK, what else is there to see?’

It was, in truth, not quite the reaction I had been expecting.

The Dippy room is packed with dinosaur facts and art projects but, it quickly became clear, my son had seen enough and was ready to move on. I managed to stall him for a few more minutes, trying to draw his attention to the size of Dippy’s feet or the length of his tail, but soon I had to concede what was obvious, he was already bored.

We left the room and descended the stairs, pausing to look at a few other artefacts and exhibits. He clearly wanted to see everything, but only for a fleeting moment, before he rushed on.

He became truly animated only once.

It occurred when he spotted a little plastic step beside a glass case. He came running to find me.

‘Daddy! Daddy! Come and see! It’s the same wee step that we have at home! The one that I use to climb onto the toilet!’

This got him more excited than Dippy.

Our visit inevitably ended in the museum gift shop. We probably spent ten times as long here as we had in the Dippy room as my son pondered and agonised over which small toy to buy. After an inglorious display of indecision, and with my threats that he would leave with nothing hanging over him, he eventually settled on a roaring stegosaurus.

He explained: ‘Stegosaurus is my third favourite dinosaur and he has some blue on him, and blue is my favourite colour.’

Then we drove home. The car was a more subdued place now as exhaustion overcame us all. My wife and son went to bed early and I was left to reflect into the late hours upon what had happened.

I had promised my boy that Dippy would be an experience he would remember for the rest of his life. Perhaps I felt a little cheated that he had dismissed so quickly what I had spent so much time building up. If there was a little bit of pique within me it was because it had not worked out the way I had imagined.

And therein lies one of the conundrums of being a parent. Understanding that my experience, or even my perception of what that experience should be, is not the same as my child’s.

I suppose I want to write a beautiful narrative of exactly how every day will work out for my boy. But it is my narrative, not his.

Just like this blog is mine and not his and the events described in it are reflected through the prism of my consciousness. Perhaps some day, if my son ever reads these words, they will all seem foreign and unfamiliar to him because it is not the experience he remembers.

The way a child thinks is so different to an adult that they may as well be a different species. But it is adults who write the children’s stories. That is why we spend a lot of time talking about things like Dippy, and no time at all talking about the excitement of finding an exact replica of your toilet step.

When my son woke this morning he immediately wanted to play with his dinosaurs, to introduce his new stegosaurus to the other toys. He talked a lot about our museum visit as I drove him to school. He proudly wore the ‘I’ve seen Dippy’ sticker on his school jumper and as he met his little friend at the school gate he immediately began to tell him all about the dinosaur museum.

And then it occurred to me that it was a special occasion for him. Perhaps because he’d seen the most famous set of dinosaur bones in the world. Maybe because he’d got a new toy or found a match for his toilet step. Possibly just because we’d done it all together as a family.

Maybe, just maybe, he will remember it for the rest of his life. And then, when he wants to, he’ll tell you exactly why. And that’s just the way it should be.

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