Two million specimens.
That’s the sum of the collection held by the Natural History Museum. Only a tiny sample is on display, but the Victorian glass displays cabinets still seem full to bursting with former fiends. Ironically, the museum itself is struggling for survival. The 2008 recession hit cultural history hard. It’s always the first thing on the chopping block – why consider the past, right? In fact, there is only two scientific staff on the payroll.
If you want to truly experience this place, you’re going to have to do some digging of your own.
We decided to investigate on a Tuesday afternoon. The 19th-century building next to the Irish parliament is unobtrusive – hidden from Merrion Square by a frame of green leaves. Originally built in 1858 to house the collection of the Royal Dublin Society, if you’ve ever wanted to experience time travel this could be the place for you.
Stepping into the lower hall, where specimens of former and present indigenous Irish animals are housed, we were greeted by the 10,000-year-old pair of Irish elk. Their bat-like antlers spread like wings in welcome. We immediately understand why it’s known locally as the ‘Dead Zoo’.
I can quite honestly say I have never seen this many stuffed animals in one place outside of the Disney Store. There is not much taxidermy in my local museum back in New Zealand: the Auckland War Memorial Museum. The birds on strings above my head were never my favourite part and it wasn’t vogue amongst many of my friends. I’d often skip it in favour of the old-fashioned toys.
This museum is an entirely different experience. The displays vary from cute little scenes of foxes in their den to, quite literally, a stack of ducks. I find it all strangely appealing. Modern museums with their huge interpretive plaques next to one tiny adze or bit of metal, I realise, are so focused on telling you a ‘story’. The one story that they have deemed to tell. This place, however, is a trove of creepy treasures where you can make up your own story. About these foxes who have to save their fox village and all the other woodland creatures from the humans…
In an attempt at interaction, we visited just as the Summer Inspectorium was wrapping up. This was 2014 mind you – I’m sure they’ve got something new for this summer. New… even that word sounds off here. The point is: do you want to stroke a wolf’s head while it’s attached to the skin of its pelt? Because you can. If you want.
This place is significantly deceptive. What initially appears to be one small hall, extends upwards. Following the sign on the back doors announcing that the ‘Exhibition Continues Upstairs’, we took a sweeping staircase to the extended collection: the Animals of the World.
I think ‘Oh my God’ were the first words I uttered upon entering the upper hall. Almost every creature imaginable was locatable: the long-noses of the proboscis monkeys, a beaver holding a stick, a giraffe named Spoticus. Lions, tigers, bears – you get the idea. More decapitated quadrupeds than you can poke a stick at.
Unseeing glass eyes stare out at us from every pane of glass. The carnivores set in snarls with their claws bared, imposingly. Curiouser and curiouser, I think. Then we find the jarred things – creatures preserved in formaldehyde – which look like they’d be more at home in the hands on an alchemist. In his dungeon lair. Foetuses at various stages of development. Eels and other sea creatures. Many with pallid, white look of something pickled.
I really wanted to see the creatures I hadn’t been able to meet in person yet: moose, beavers, closer to a Puffin than Rathlin Island can ever boast. I should have been expecting the mutants. There are giants, including the biggest lobster caught in Irish waters and the frame of a blue whale that is suspended from the ceiling.
The day we visited was a quiet afternoon during the school holidays. We had a lot of time to think about what was before us. I was struck by the subtext of social commentary in this museum: the rhino’s horn is due to be replaced with an imitation after being removed for safe keeping. I presume they’ve done the same with the elephants. Ivory is still perceived as valuable even with the ever increasing stigma attached to it.
Curiously, many of the items have been donated over the years from private collections. I try to imagine having something like this baby zebra in my sitting room. The human skeleton is also a gift to the collection, a tiny label announcing its origin. I briefly contemplate my own mortality and consider donating myself to the collection. Now that’s a legacy.
It took us two hours to wander amongst the collections, but it would be easy to spend a lot longer. A couple of visits may even be required. The beauty and tragedy is that there is so much to see but with little to no direction many visitors are missing the best of it.
It would take millions of euros and a small army of careful conservators to bring the Dead Zoo into the 21st Century. Although a big part of me wants to retain the charm of time stood still, any more neglect of funding will see this place literally crumble. The top two levels have been closed since 2007 when a staircase collapsed, injuring eleven people. Now access to the renowned dodo skeleton and Tiernan’s favourite – the reptiles – is closed to the public. With the inevitable retirement of academics who are not being replaced due to a moratorium on hires in this sector, there is no insect curator at all. Perhaps, almost 10 years on from the recession, the time has come for Ireland to start investing again? Before they lose it for good.
Keen to Visit?
Cost: FREE! Yay :3
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 2pm – 5pm (Closed Mondays, Christmas Day and Good Friday)
Website: Natural History Museum
Would you like to visit this museum?
This is an abridged and partially updated version of a post we wrote in 2014.