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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A seal. Hopefully not shot by a colonel.
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.
Anyway, that’s it until next time. If you enjoyed, please leave a comment.