Last updated on April 21, 2022
In the early 1900s, zoological gardens throughout Europe began to incorporate images from extinct life to link it to extant nature. The most prominent of those was probably Carl Hagenbeck’s Urzeitpark, which became part of his revolutionary zoo in Stellingen near Hamburg shortly after its opening, in 1909. Until well into the 1910s this attraction garnered publicity all over the world, and Hagenbeck’s example was followed up in various other locations.
The discovery of multiple sensational dinosaurs, and the subsequent proliferation of their remains throughout natural history museums both in America and Europe, created a popular hunger for more information about these animals. The influence of this “dinomania” on public culture was profound and did not escape zoo authorities who were increasingly engaged in competition with natural history museums that now seemed to hold a unique trump card.
At roughly the same time, scientists started to adapt their relationship to zoological gardens, partly because of the changes in orientation of the latter, but also because their idea about the relationship between extinct and extant life started to shift. Rather than focus on systematics and anatomy, it became common for scholars to look at these animals in the light of ecology and development. This made it all the more valuable to explicitly show existing life, and existing ecosystems, in relationship to ancient ones.
This is clearly shown both in the reactions to Hagenbeck’s park and in subsequent, similar efforts that were undertaken under more stringent scientific supervision. In my contribution, I shall contextualize Hagenbeck’s park within the context of both the public interest in past life and changing scientific ideas about the relation of past worlds to present nature.
Few expressions have been abused more abundantly than ‘revolutionary’. But even by the strictest of definitions, that was exactly what the opening in 1907 of Carl Hagenbeck’s zoo at Stellingen, near Hamburg, meant. “Hagenbeck”, as it became known, was a radical game-changer: zoos that had been famed before instantly looked old-fashioned afterward.
The zoo’s biggest asset was, by all accounts, Carl Hagenbeck himself. Having long ago achieved fame for his activities as an animal trader and showman, Hagenbeck’s skill in marketing his zoo was almost as impressive as the way he conceived the new park. Born as the son of a fishmonger who dabbled in animal exhibits, Hagenbeck became a famous animal trader, supplying animals to virtually every zoo in Europe and quite a few in the United States. It is important to realize how little Hagenbeck left to chance. Everything in his life and business was carefully orchestrated and organized; even his personal appearance was modeled after that of Abraham Lincoln in order to create an impression of humility and virtue.
The success of the animal exhibits was such, that he began to consider setting up a permanent animal park around 1900. It was going to be different from traditional zoos, however. Experience had taught him that relatively minor height differences would prevent most animals from escaping. This allowed for the construction of landscapes where animals would seemingly live together, but were in fact separated by shallow moats, basically reshaping the zoo as an animal theater.
The park opened on 7 May 1907, and the immersive effects of the zoo’s five panoramas proved to be an instant attraction. More than 800,000 people flocked to Stellingen in its first six months, and the illustrated press devoted lengthy articles to Hagenbeck’s “animal paradise”. Hagenbeck deftly publicized the new attractions in the zoo, showing his skills at getting (and keeping) a story in the newspapers. The open support by the German Emperor Wilhelm II, who visited the park on multiple occasions, of course greatly helped.
After 1907, Hagenbeck kept searching for useful additions. For this purpose, he acquired a plot of land next to the original zoo, which was connected to it by a bridge. The main attraction of this part of the park, opened in 1909, was the Völkerschau: a series of displays events involving indigenous peoples from German, but also other countries’ colonies. The other consisted of a “prehistoric park” made up not of mounted skeletons, but life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.
At the time, the German public began to show an increasing fascination with prehistoric life for a number of reasons. Firstly, Germany became the recipient of one of Andrew Carnegie’s casts of a skeleton of the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii, a personal gift by the wealthy American to the German Emperor, Wilhelm II. He was somewhat upended, however, by the American Museum’s gift of a partial but real fossil of another Diplodocus to the new building of the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt, a good six months earlier.
Around the same time, news reached the press about a multitude of dinosaurs that had been discovered at Tendaguru, a hill near Lindi in the German colony of Southeast Africa (now Tanzania). But best of all, great numbers of the dinosaur Plateosaurus were unearthed in not one but two locations in Germany itself, at Trossingen and Halberstadt.
Where the German popular press had historically not shown a great deal of interest in paleontology and geology this onslaught of discovery and spectacle caused it to pay greater attention, which cannot have escaped the consummate marketeer Hagenbeck. For some time, Hagenbeck had expressed his hope to catch a living dinosaur in Africa, a continent widely considered to be a likely source for extinct or other hitherto-undiscovered animals, even large ones. As late as 1901, the world was astounded by the discovery of the Okapi, a relative of the giraffe that had first been spotted in by Stanley in 1883 but remained elusive for twenty years afterwards.
Even more promising bounties seemed to be in store, as throughout the nineteenth century, indigenous legends of this Mokele-mbembe, as the locals were reported to call it, were brought to Europe. This was said to be a giant animal whose description somewhat resembled the big sauropod dinosaurs such as Diplodocus. That is to say, it could resemble one, provided the right stories from the Congo River basin were picked. Unfortunately, the Congolese stories were far from unanimous in their description of the creature, not even agreeing on its physical form – or whether it possessed one to begin with. The possible existence of a living sauropod in the African interior turned out to be a magnet to explorers; and to some adventurous souls, the discovery of the remains of dinosaurs at Tendaguru in 1907 only seemed to make such a presence more likely.
In early 1909, Hagenbeck announced his plans to set up an expedition to bring back a dinosaur, a sauropod, from the interior of Africa. Hagenbeck had spoken about his conviction that prehistoric creatures had survived in the interior of Africa; he attached particular value to cave paintings or purported dinosaurs that he saw while in Rhodesia. As his attempts at catching such a creature had not been successful in the past, he said, he decided on the next best thing: a set of sculptures that were scheduled to be presented to the public in 1909 as an extension of his recently-opened zoo (More about that episode here).
Around the same time, Hagenbeck’s memoirs, Von Tieren und Menschen (translated as Beasts and Men), were to appear and contained references to animals assumed to be extinct, both from African peoples and European travelers. Both these events required suitable attention. The press coverage the expedition received was extensive, even if it remains unclear whether an expedition set up specifically to find a living sauropod ever took place; after all, Hagenbeck often sent out crews into the jungle to acquire animals for his company. But he, enthusiastically aided by a press again grateful for such sensational news, wasn’t afraid to milk the story for all it was worth.
Hagenbeck was hardly the first to come up with the idea of a “Jurassic Park”, of course. Sculptures of extinct animals in London’s Crystal Park, although by now regarded as quaint relics of an uninformed past, had been around for over sixty years.
The first life-size sculpture of a dinosaur in a zoo was probably an Iguanodon that had been standing for a few years in the grounds of Copenhagen zoo. This sculpture, a somewhat clumsy affair that was fashioned out of wood and plaster by the sculptor Alexis Møller, had been unveiled and widely publicized in 1901. It did not survive for long: in 1903 it suffered a structural collapse. But the friendship between the Copenhagen zoo director, Julius Schiøtt, and Hagenbeck makes it plausible that Hagenbeck got the idea for his prehistoric sculptures from the Danish example.
The choice of who to ask to construct a prehistoric landscape seemed obvious. When he was looking for a talented artist to provide animal sculptures for the monumental entrance to his new zoo, Hagenbeck had turned to the twenty-six-year-old Josef Pallenberg (1882-1948), and the result had been most successful. In him, Hagenbeck had found as much an obsessive as himself. Pallenberg had entered the art academy of Düsseldorf in 1899, but he failed to fit in at the school either politically or socially. In addition, his interest in natural themes and his obsessive eye for detail did little to endear him to his fellow students or his teachers. The detail in his sculptures was such, that he was even accused of simply casting live animals. In turn, he accused his teachers of simply not understanding animals. Pallenberg, of course, did: he kept a regular menagerie at home, partly as subject matter for his drawings and sculptures, but also much because he liked their company.
But Pallenberg’s naturalism, unfashionable as it might be in the eyes of the avant-garde, made him a sought-after artist for anyone looking for depictions and particularly sculptures of animals. Soon after he had left the Düsseldorf academy, the Berlin zoo employed him to adorn its staff rooms with models of animals. It was in Berlin that the young sculptor made the acquaintance of Carl Hagenbeck, and was commissioned to help with the gate of the Stellingen zoo. Hagenbeck was obviously satisfied with the result, and when it came to finding a sculptor to provide him with statues of extinct fauna, Pallenberg seemed like the obvious choice.
In early 1908, he was commissioned to sculpt the statues for Hagenbeck’s prehistoric park. This timing at the very least suggests that the zoo director’s utterances about ‘live dinosaurs’ were a mere attempt to generate publicity for what had been about reconstruction from the beginning.
Pallenberg soon set to work in Hamburg. The better part of the following year went into building the models, which were constructed out of a frame of wood and iron, covered by concrete. Although the zoo provided some help, most of it came down to Pallenberg and his younger brother Christian. They worked under a strict deadline, and with limited financial means. By the autumn of 1909, the work had been finished, and Hagenbeck was able to open a new part of his zoo that contained both the Urzeitpark and the Völkerschau. Both features turned out to be an instant success, both in the press attention and the attendance they generated.
The sauropod dinosaur Diplodocus became the impressive centerpiece of the Urtierpark at Stellingen. The animal had been thrust into the public spotlight in the previous years, thanks to Andrew Carnegie’s donation of casts of its skeleton to various European museums. Pallenberg constructed several additional exhibits: big ones such as a display of a Ceratosaurus attacking a Stegosaurus, and various smaller examples such as the – German – first bird, Archaeopteryx. He drew upon a number of sources: the Allosaurus and the Triceratops ensemble were clearly influenced by contemporary paintings, whereas the Iguanodon is likely to have been inspired by the sculpture from Copenhagen.
The choice for these specific animals was hardly coincidental: Hagenbeck used animals whose names had a ring of familiarity for the educated public: Iguanodon, which had been around for nearly a century, of course deserved a place; the fin-backed Pelycosaurs were already a familiar sight, as was the German proto-bird, Archaeopteryx. But with its recently-gained notoriety, Diplodocus would always be the focus of attention.
While Pallenberg was a very gifted nature painter and sculptor, his emphasis on strict realism restricted him in an endeavor where some degree of speculation and imagination was paramount. As a result, the time pressure, and budgetary restraints, the reconstructions ended up somewhat plain-looking, albeit still impressive because of their size and ensemble. A few examples, most notably his Iguanodon, show true artistry, but most of the others are lifted from the work of other artists.
To give an idea of how much of a success Hagenbeck’s park became, we need only look at the visitor numbers. Where Germany’s major natural history museums were struggling to admit more than 80-100.000 people a year around 1910, Hagenbeck’s (as it became known) tally came to well over a million. The old, far more extensive Hamburg zoo struggled to find half as many visitors. It is hardly surprising that faced with such competition, it had to close its doors in 1921.
It is more difficult to determine how much of the zoo’s success can be attributed to the Urzeitpark. Visitor number rose by about 50,000 from 1908 to 1909, the year the park opened – a significantly larger year-to-year rise than usual. However, at least part (and probably most) of this rise can be put down to the introduction of the Völkerschauen in the same year.
Publicity around the opening of the prehistoric landscape emphasized how he had modeled his dinosaur after a Diplodocus at the American Museum in New York. But since the AMNH did not possess a mounted Diplodocus skeleton, he must have been referring to Charles Knight’s painting and model. This reference to an American museum was apparently intended to add scientific credentials to his dinosaur display. Institutions in the United States were generally acknowledged to be world-leading in dinosaur paleontology. But we have no actual proof this trip ever took place though, and both his erroneous reference to a “New York Diplodocus” and a rather restrictive time schedule suggest that he used whatever was available to him in Germany: the Berlin and Frankfurt Diplodoci and available literature and artwork.
But both Pallenberg and Hagenbeck probably felt they needed to refer to scientific authority to explain their choices in a scientific subject. However successful Hagenbeck’s zoo had been as a money magnet, in its first years it didn’t fare well among the scientific community. Most of its criticism was directed towards the whole concept of the new zoo.
Zoo directors such as Heck (Berlin) and Hornaday (Bronx) considered it an affront to the scientific and educational value of zoological gardens: it was impossible for the visitor no learn anything about classification, and the animals themselves could not be observed in anatomical detail from that great a distance. Finally, it was hardly surprising that Hagenbeck’s continuing taste for the dramatic was, at least among zoo professionals, universally condemned. By including these models, Hagenbeck was in all likelihood also attempting to give his zoo a certain amount of scientific credibility: partly to counter the arguments I mentioned earlier, but also to appeal to a different audience
If scientific credibility was what Hagenbeck was after, he must have been disappointed. While the Urzeitpark was received well in the popular press and garnered a large amount of international publicity for a surprisingly long time, the scientific world generally ignored it. A significant example is an article in the popular scientific magazine Die Umschau from 1911, which is entirely devoted to the reconstruction of past life and the apparent superiority of German views on the matter: It ignores Pallenberg’s models entirely.1 Whether that really bothered Hagenbeck remains to be seen: his zoo continued to be hugely profitable, which was always his primary concern.
A more successful attempt to exploit prehistoric animals to give a zoo scientific credentials took place four years later in 1913 in Berlin, when Stellingen’s main German critic Ludwig Heck, the director of the Berlin Zoo, and Aquarium director Oscar Heinroth had the front of the new aquarium adorned with the latest in paleontological reconstruction.2 Heck’s criticism of the Stellingen zoo had been more than a little self-serving, and he had recently been rattled by the announcement that Hagenbeck planned to build a second zoo near Berlin, at the Jungfernheide. Not able to match Stellingen in display innovation, and dreading future competition, the Berlin zoo put its cards on scientific rigor rather than mass entertainment – or rather: exploited scientific respectability to attract the masses.
The aquarium’s setup was therefore meant to emphasize the zoo’s scientific credentials, and nowhere was that clearer than in the extensive decorations of the façades, both on the sides facing the street and the zoo. Whether their creator, Heinrich Harder was a better artist than Pallenberg is impossible for me to say, but it appears clear that he was a more imaginative one. Rather than Stellingen’s rather plain statues, Harder used daring motifs from contemporary art as well as from Eastern Asian art to produce something of an artistic value that at least matched its scientific importance (and far outclasses it today). To top it off, a colossal statue of an Iguanodon welcomed zoo visitors to enter the aquarium building.
Scientific ambitions were also clear in Harder’s modus operandi. He worked together closely with scholars from the Berlin Natural History Museum to create a large number of reconstructions that reflected the latest German paleontological and zoological insights. This aspect of the new building was emphasized to such an extent in the publicity surrounding the opening of the building in August of 1913, that it even overshadowed information about its living occupants. While most of these reconstructions now appear strangely idiosyncratic even for the time, its legacy proved far more lasting than that of Hagenbeck’s models.
It is probably fair to conclude that Hagenbeck’s Urzeitpark was an attempt on his part to reconcile the best of two worlds: install a new publicity and audience magnet, while also giving his zoo some scientific credit. But science should serve the financial success of the enterprise, similarly to his statements about purported African dinosaurs that were still alive, or the publication (and timing) of his memoirs. It was a somewhat half-hearted attempt, that went largely unnoticed by the scientific community. In a sense, German paleontologists had too much on their plate. Moreover, he failed to engage scientists themselves, contrary to Heck and Heinroth in Berlin. As a consequence, the Urzeitpark comes across as a strange oddity, particularly in a time where new such “Jurassic Parks” seem to become almost ubiquitous. It comes across as far less outdated as Berlin’s aquarium decorations, but it also lacks Berlin’s far greater artisticity while still looking pretty outdated by modern standards.
Now formally listed buildings, they are likely to remain an odd reminder of Carl Hagenbeck’s marketing genius for the foreseeable future.
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- Anon (1910), ‘A Giant Dinosaur Still Alive? “Not Impossible That Some Type of Prehistoric Monster May Have Survived” Says Professor Matthew of American Museum of Natural History (New York), Commenting on the Strange News from South Africa’, The Spokane Press, 1910 p. 15.
- Anon (1913), ‘Berlin ist um eine in Anlage und Ausführung gleich grossartige Sehenswürdigkeit reicher’, Berliner Leben, 16 (8), s.p.
- Anon. (1913), ‘Die Einweihung des Aquariums im Zoo’, Der Tag, 1913 August 18,
- Anon. (1913), ‘Die Eröffnung des neuen Aquariums’, Berliner Tageblatt, 1913 August 18,
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This post is a part of my PhD dissertation that didn’t make it into my book on the history of Carnegie’s Diplodocus casts, American Dinosaur Abroad.
Becker, Hans. “Alte und neue Rekonstruktionen ausgestorbener Tiere.” Die Umschau. Übersicht über die Fortschritte und Bewegungen auf dem Gesamtgebiet der Wissenschaft und Technik, sowie ihrer Beziehungen zu Literatur und Kunst XV, no. 49 (1911): 1021–26. ↩