What is it about old museums? Me and Ye Olde Zoology are continuing our love affair, which recently lead me to dig out my copy of In the Heart of the Amazon Forest, but also to revisit a much-loved gem of a museum in the middle of Dublin. There are a few natural history museums that have changed little since their early days- I’ve written about the Grant Museum before, and I hear the displays in the Paris Natural History Museum are much along the same lines. Dublin’s Natural History Museum, tucked in next to the Dáil on Merrion Square, is another one of such treasures. Affectionately known as the Dead Zoo (to the extent that, if you type Dead Zoo into Google, it knows exactly what you’re talking about), the building is little changed since the early 1900s- a museum of a museum, with line after line of skeletons and some amusingly bad taxidermy. I think part of the reason I like these places so much is that stepping into them allows one to travel back to the golden age of botanical and zoological exploration, of George Steller and Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates (though I’m aware I’m rose-tinting a time when an awful lot of animals were persecuted to extinction-some, ironically, to furnish museums). Still – while I know there are thousands of new species yet to be described, to arrive somewhere where the fauna and flora was almost entirely unknown (to western science at least) must have been a ming-boggling experience. The world must have seemed endlessly bountiful.
If you time it right (on a weekday, between school visits) you can have the museum to yourself, and possibly a few artists sketching the anatomy of the specimens. The ground floor is devoted to Irish fauna (including a large collection of towering Irish elk), while the upper levels have wildlife from across the globe, including a thylacine and a dodo skeleton. Sadly, you can’t see the latter, as the two upper galleries have been off-limits to the public for several years due to safety reasons. This is frustrating, as there is some seriously cool stuff up top- including a gargantuan gharial that has to be seen to be believed. Chronic underfunding of the museum has been a curse as well as an unintended blessing – while there’s never been money to properly redevelop it, which no doubt has helped it to retain that feeling of being paused in time, neither has there been money to repair it, or to extend it so they can show off the vast scale and depth of the collection. Either way, there is a melancholic romance about the place that gives me mixed feelings about any sort of redevelopment. Go see it while it’s still as it is- but maybe donate a few euros to make sure it doesn’t collapse entirely.