The Dead Zoo

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The Natural History Museum was founded in 1856,

It was constructed to accommodate the large collections of bird, animal and geological specimens belonging to the Royal Dublin Society, the RDS.

For overseas readers, the RDS by the way, is a venerable and prestigious institution dedicated to the promotion of learning industry, agriculture, arts and scholarship, founded in 1731.   So there.

These natural specimen collections had been growing steadily since the 18th century and badly needed a new home. For this, and for obvious educational reasons, a new museum was decided upon.   The commission was won, incredibly by, by an..  architect.  Okay it was won by one Fredrick Claradon, I see.  Very handsome it is too.    The new museum was designed, I read, to match and be visually sympathetic to, the National Gallery (of Ireland) buildings, which stand on the far side of Leinster lawn and Leinster House.

Leinster House is the former home of the Fitzgerald family, who were Dukes of Leinster, later the building became the headquarters of the RDS itself.  Today it’s the home of our Parliament, or the Dail, in Irish, a body who have of course been covering themselves in statesman-like glory the last 35 years or so.    So that building, the now-parliament, has the National Gallery on one side, (with its Goyas and its Carraragio) and the Natural History museum on the other.

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The Natural History building opened its doors in 1857.

Ever since, it has been visited by untold thousands, generations indeed, of Irish people.  Especially perhaps, by school children, on visits with their science teachers, and equally by visitors from abroad.

Many, if not most Irish people have some foggy memory of the place, of having been taken here as a child, by a parent or godparent or by school.  Some people call it the “Dead Zoo” a term I’ve never liked (I love the place so much, for some daft reason I consider this phrase disrespectful)   But who cares.  People have impressions of this wonderful, gloomy place, of gaping at some battered old tiger, or some shark in an antique cabinet.  Early and young impressions count a lot   So for many Irish people therefore, the Museum exercises a powerful hold on the imagination.   I am no exception.

For some reason I’ve never been a “pet person”.  On the other hand, since I was a small boy I’ve always been fascinated by wild animals.  I love walking in woods, bogland or fields in Wicklow or in West Cork.  My idea of a good night in involves watching David Attenborough on mossy hummock of ground in the hills of Uganda, whispering about Mountain Gorillas 15 yards away.  Or Sir David in the Kalahari, getting enthusiastic about the habits of the Black Rhino, or the hunting culture of lions.  My idea of heaven is actually being in India or Africa, seeing these things for myself, something I’ve been lucky enough to do a couple of times over the last 10 years.  So I’d be fairly characterized as obsessed with animals, with the majesty of nature, of landscape and wildlife.  (I bet, if you are still reading this piece, that you’re the same.)   But it would be a pretty safe bet that, for me, this old museum on Merrion Square played a significant role in that development, including at some deep subliminal levels.  This is a place that haunts the imagination, and the memory.

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The museum is wonderfully non-modern, almost anti-modern.   It’s in a style of what’s now called a “cabinet museum” –meaning in the sense of an 18th century gentleman’s’ “cabinet of curiosities’”.   Many people have remarked it is “a museum that belongs in a museum”.   But of course it is still of huge educational and scientific value, to say nothing of the way it fires the imagination.

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The animals stand or crouch, in large, beautiful old Victorian cabinets of glass and magogany.  In the Irish collection animals, which is on the ground floor, some of the animals (grouse, hare, stoat)  have been arranged into contrasting summer and winter landscapes.  These ‘tableau” are, in their own way, effectively works of art.  There is, to take but one example,  a collection of waterbirds, artfully posed and arranged, swimming and diving in a murky pond. The artists, (for that is what they were) used a sort of early fiberglass I think.  By this device you can see both above and below the water line-  sort of split screen effect.  The effect is powerful, amazing somehow, intriguing and richly atmospheric. I’m just sorry I don’t have a picture of this particular exhibit to show you here.

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In general, there are, thank God, no trendy touch screen, interactive, plasma boards here in the Natural history Museum, nothing explaining the evolution of the dinosaur or any of that lame nonsense.  There is plenty of educational material for kids, if they look and can still read.  But, in general what you get is simpler and frankly, much better.  You get some dead tiger, lion, water-buffalo or baboon, caught, trapped or shot in 1903, ruthlessly, through the head probably, by some Anglo-Irish colonel or whatnot, a Major FitzMurphy of Tupperware-Ballyrotingcastletown, or some other, mad, Blimpish figure.

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Often a bullet hole is still clearly visible in the head or flank. After its demise,   the poor animal was then badly, equally ruthlessly, or even appallingly stuffed by, well, by some theatrical-costume firm off Shaftsbury Avenue, by the looks of it.

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No, in fairness, much of the taxidermy is very good, even after more than 150 years. Some of it is more than adequate, while only a few specimens are tragi-comic.   Admittedly there was giraffe, which fell apart or entirely collapsed a few years ago. There was also an old Victorian staircase that collapsed.  I get the two stories mixed up now.  I know there was a recent giraffe incident, but frankly I can’t recall the details.

At least one thing collapsed, quite possibly a giraffe and a staircase together.   Perhaps one knocked over the other.  Who can remember?

But it doesn’t really matter, does it?  None of it matters.  Because this is one of the best places in the world.

Enjoy the rest of the pictures.

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A seal.  Hopefully not shot by a colonel.

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This owl is from the Barrington collection, a sub-section of the museums collection donated by a man of that name in the early 20th century, a collection both interesting and beautiful.

ImageIt may seem unfair, that this German doormouse is called “fat”.  He does not appear to be fat.

Anyway, that’s it until next time.  If you enjoyed, please leave a comment.

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20 thoughts on “The Dead Zoo

  1. I have been there. It was a highlight of one of my trips to Dublin (from Melbourne). It is a magical place! I like the term “Dead Zoo” it conjures up some wonderful images for me, a lover of taxidermy. It also made me HAVE TO read this blog post. Thanks for posting.

  2. The Natural History Museum in Kensington, London was always my favourite museum. I haven’t been there for years and suspect it may well have suffered some of the modernising influences you mentioned. I love the idea that the Natural History Museum in Dublin is considered a museum in itself.
    Those Victorians have got a lot to answer for in many ways but while our politicians are busy apologising for them, their tremendous achievements are being pushed ever further into the background. Bringing education to the masses through these wonderful museums is one such area. Obviously, these animals look a lot better alive and running free in the wild but there was none of the media we’ve become so accustomed to today of course. Our TV’s are awash the most brilliant natural history films. Back in Victorian times, besides the Zoo, another great Victorian invention that has undergone radical changes in recent times, this was the only way the ordinary folk got to see such wildlife and I really think these pioneers should be judged in terms of the times in which they lived and given credit where credit is due.
    Seem to have gone of on one.. sorry. Another very entertaining and educational post Arran. 🙂

    1. not at all Chillibrook, thank you very much for contributing, & you make some excellent points, notably about the Victorians and their era, and about us not always judging the deeds and attitudes of the past through the prism of our own age and its mores. They, the Victorians were indeed extraordinary people. I am not always crazy about all their paintings, but they excelled in so many fields and made our modern world, in engineering, architecture, sciences, literature, learning and so on. And as for the soldier-explorer types, some of their deeds were just astonishing. The polymath, linguist, translator, & and explorer Cpt Sir Richard Francis Burton was possibly one of the most extraordinary people to have ever lived, not to mention my own, personal hero Earnest Shackleton. (okay you could call Shackleton “Edwardian” instead. but he was born a Victorian, so..) Many if not most of the specimens in the Natural History museum in Dublin, (and of course in London and the others) were shot, fished or otherwise provided by exactly these “colonial-types”: all the soldiers, explorers, surveyors, engineers, administrators and the rest. So I guess, in a way this is a museum to them too, and to their vanished age.

  3. Hi Arran, love this piece and love the Natural History Museum, in particular, its (human) scale. No cavernous halls, no reams of information, no buttons to press! Just a cool place to spend an hour or two whenever the mood strikes.

  4. Great post Arran. I agree with Chillbrook and your observations that we should appreciate the historic context in which these animals were killed, stuffed and displayed, and that the reasons were primarily educational and scientific. However the Victorians were not always so, check out these anthropomorphic taxidermy of pugilist squirrels from the Castleward National Trust’s collection
    http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/836091.1

    1. thank you Emmeline, an interesting link, to say the least. Boxing squirrels eh? Rather distasteful, well, disturbing in fact. I think what makes it disturbing is the ludicrous level of “anthropomorphism” -is that the word I mean?- the putting wild animals into human poses and posing them doing human activities, to say nothing of the clothes, boxing gloves etc… It is all rather ugly. Curiously, although I think we have the right to kill animals, to take their lives, I’d say most of us agree today the one thing we should never take away is their dignity. But you are right of course, the Victorians did not always make, or even see, this distinction. Your link demonstrates that. Human history in general of course is full of much, far, far worse things being done animals for human entertainment, from lions in the Roman amphitheater to Victorians gambling on dog & cock fights, dancing bears, bull baiting and the rest of the whole long, ugly story. At least we are learning now, eh?

  5. love the National history Museum and often go there. There is always some sections to explore in more detail. Recently I went with a friend and here 5 kids and it was a great day. I think it was on a Sunday and they had this amazing free interactive show in the theatre, with holograms, it was so interesting and a different way to explain things to kids

    1. I rather like the old fashioned approach, but then I’m a bit of an old foggy, but you’re absolutely right of course, there’s so many good ways to show and explain things. Anything that helps us learn is always good. The holograms sound very cool. Which Natural History Museum was that?

  6. I love museums of all kinds, but especially natural history museums. Thanks for taking us on a tour of the Natural History Museum in Dublin. I hope to visit it some day.

    Some of my favorite natural history museums are the Dyche Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas (my alma mater), the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian and the Natural History Museum in New York City.

    I agree that animals deserve dignity, and I like how many American Indian tribes thanked the spirit of an animal they killed for food. I’m sure other cultures also did this.

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