The man behind Trinity’s Zoological Museum

An interview with Dr. Martyn Linnie

While Trinity’s Zoological Museum has its own stories to tell through its 200 year old collection, so too does its current curator, Dr. Martyn Linnie, who kindly gave his time recently to speak to Trinity News about his involvement in its development. The Museum has received many awards during his time as curator, including prestigious accreditations from the Museum Standards Programme for Ireland (MSPI) and from the National Heritage Council for his work on the management and conservation of the collection. Through his hard work and dedication over the past two decades, Linnie has transformed the museum from a teaching museum in decline into what is now a vibrant, interactive space open to the public from June to August each year.

In stark contrast to the more traditional style museums, Linnie encourages visitors to handle many of the items on display, including skulls, skeletons and the recently introduced live animals such as snakes and giant snails. Behind this approach is Linnie’s understanding that learning is greatly facilitated and enhanced when anyone can form a real connection to the animals that they are learning about.

To understand what it is that inspired this innovative approach to using the Museum’s collections, we must first understand Linnie’s own story. Growing up in the 1960s, he was one of seven children in a middle class family. From the age of 12, Linnie worked several jobs in his free time to earn money that could then be invested in his passion – animals. During summer periods he worked on fruit and vegetable farms and in the local soft-drinks factory Savage Smith. He even ran a small business collecting old newspapers in the locality for recycling in the nearby paper mill.

This small but steady income enabled Linnie to pursue his passion for animals, and so he duly set about buying a wide range of whatever animals happened to be available at the time. His curiosity led him to study how colour combinations could be affected by matching certain individuals together and how altering food intake and diets would affect changes in the resultant offspring. By doing practical experiments such as these, Linnie was experiencing first hand how biological concepts such as heredity work.

“He speaks fondly of the entomology course in particular, where lectures were linked to practical sessions in which the museum collection was used to bring the learning process to life.”

The beginning of Linnie’s long story at Trinity can be traced back to a single key moment in his mid teens. When he was 15, Linnie’s father told him about a vacancy in the zoological department at Trinity for a laboratory technician. Despite his young age, he was called for an interview. Through his passion and knowledge about animals, he so impressed the department’s professor that he was offered the position. For the first 3 years of his employment, Linnie worked 4 days a week in the department and was at the same time enrolled at the Institute of Technology, Kevin Street, where he followed a course to become a fully qualified laboratory technician. In his initial phase at Trinity, Linnie’s work revolved largely around the general preparation and maintenance of laboratories for teaching and research.

A further four years of education at Kevin Street allowed Linnie to earn further qualifications. By the time he was in his late twenties, he decided he would pursue a PhD, having been encouraged to do so by his colleagues in the Zoology Department. Having developed an interest in entomology, Linnie chose to study biodeterioration in museum collections. This gave him the opportunity to work in both the Glasgow and London natural history museums where he gained more experience in the management of museum collections.

Linnie’s research was almost entirely self-guided, not least because his supervisor, entomologist Derek Goodhue, unfortunately died within a year of his starting his PhD. Since Linnie had not been given a formal education in zoology, his PhD also required that he attend undergraduate zoology lectures. Linnie clearly relished this opportunity as it broadened his zoological knowledge in many different areas. He speaks fondly of the entomology course in particular, where lectures were linked to practical sessions in which the museum collection was used to bring the learning process to life. This positive experience with the museum collection reinforced his appreciation of its importance and relevance to teaching at all levels. This would ultimately drive the work Linnie did following his PhD, which eventually culminated in his appointment as curator.

Changing Demands

Before Linnie began working in Trinity, major structural changes had already taken place in the Zoology Building. These changes brought with them the repurposing of the entire building. Indeed, not everyone would be aware that in its origin, the Zoology Building had a vastly different interior in the style of the Natural History Museum (NHM) on Merrion Square. The massive reduction in the size of the museum section meant that many specimens had, by then, been placed in storage, sold, destroyed or loaned to the NHM.

When Linnie ultimately took control of the Museum and its collection, he began the long and arduous task of unboxing many of the specimens. Unaware of their contents, he somewhat fortuitously came across a collection of what were later identified as a collection of internationally renowned Blaschka glass models of marine invertebrate animals. These world-famous glass models were purchased by the college in the late 19th century as teaching aids for students as invertebrate specimens were very difficult to preserve. Over time, the morphological accuracy, rarity and beauty of these models hugely increased their value and unsurprisingly they are now a treasured component of the Museum.

Many of the once-forgotten Blaschka models were restored by Linnie although recently, three more of the glass models thought to be irreparably damaged have been professionally restored with generous funding from the Heritage Council of Ireland.

“Indeed, not everyone would be aware that in its origin, the Zoology Building had a vastly different interior, in the style of the Natural History Museum (NHM) on Merrion Square.”

Tidying things up

Historically, museums tend to have huge backlogs in their collections, with many specimens waiting to be identified and catalogued. The Zoological Museum was no different and one of Linnie’s early tasks as curator was to undertake an inventory of the collection so that a conservation/restoration programme could be planned. Together with his son, who inherited his passion for zoology, Linnie gradually catalogued and restored most of the collection. However, in the early 2000s Linnie realised that if the collection and its space was to be given a proper revival, funds would be needed. To do this, he developed a scheme to raise funds by inviting zoology alumni and others to become “Friends of the Museum”. This proved highly successful and enabled the complete restoration of the collection including the installation of new exhibition cases and storage areas.

Outreach and civic engagement

Central to Linnie’s vision as museum curator is the concept of making the collection accessible to audiences from outside the College, in particular young people. As Linnie sees it, the present museum is not a “dead zoo” in the traditional sense, but rather a place that has evolved into an interactive, visionary space where communities, families, tourists, schools, clubs, societies and the general public can discover different ways of learning by directly engaging with the objects, mediators, staff and volunteers.

Visitors are actively encouraged to handle objects and to ask questions about the Museum and the specimens. For many young visitors, the Museum’s display of live animals also provides a unique opportunity to overcome the often unwarranted fear and disgust that invertebrates such as cockroaches and snails may evoke, with preconceived impressions of bugs being replaced by a healthy curiosity. Most importantly perhaps, Linnie wants the Museum to engage visitors in the many areas of contemporary zoological research such as conservation, ecology, biodiversity and evolution.

The museum has numerous examples of extinct animals such as the Great Auk and the Thylacine. Other endangered species on display include the Kakapo, a flightless parrot found only in New Zealand, and the Pangolin, a mammal belonging to an ancient group which includes anteaters.

Linnie firmly believes that the future of museums should reflect the original aim of the collection when it was established in 1777 in Regent House, to provide an opportunity for the public to learn about the natural world through contemporary discoveries. It was only when the collection was moved to the purpose built Zoology Building in 1876 that it became primarily a teaching collection and to a lesser extent a resource for research. He is therefore delighted that in its current form it has already proven itself to be successful both culturally and commercially, despite being a young museum in terms of public access. Opened to the public just 5 years ago, the Zoology Museum achieved a record number of 10,000 visitors in 2017. This is despite the many limitations under which the museum operates.

Being financially self-sufficient, the small fee charged to visitors doesn’t leave much room for large investments or changes to the current arrangement of the museum. The available space is another major limitation. Linnie points out how despite the lack of formal marketing, the museum has benefited greatly from word-of-mouth promotion generated by the overwhelmingly positive experience of visitors. Linnie doesn’t see it as a commercial enterprise but rather a place of public learning and enjoyment through direct engagement whilst maintaining an ethos and collaboration of creative teaching and research for its staff, students and researchers.

“Through his hard work and dedication at that crucial time, he has managed to safeguard the museum’s future.”

As a member of the planning committee for the E3 science building, Linnie hopes that it can live up to the expectations of facilitating learning by providing dynamic teaching places for students. When asked about the possibility of the museum being allocated a space in the planned E3 building or possibly elsewhere, Linnie is reluctant to give me any definitive answers. While discussions have taken place, it is more likely that it will remain in its present location on the first floor of the Zoology Building. It is clear however that Linnie would grasp the opportunity to expand the museum, which would undoubtedly benefit massively from a larger space. This would not only allow more of its collection to be displayed but could also showcase the research which takes place in the Zoology Department. Despite the major appeal that his vision has for anyone studying or interested in the most pressing issues concerning the natural world, Linnie realises that this would require widespread support from college officials and a large financial investment.

Linnie admits that the Zoological Museum does of course have special requirements, given its large and bulky specimens such as the full elephant skeleton and rhinoceros. Referring to the specimens in the wider context, Linnie tells me how each is unique and irreplaceable. This is not only true because of the specific value of each specimen, but also because many ethical guidelines have evolved in recent decades, making collection of such specimens far more difficult or even impossible. He summarises this nicely, saying that “it’s a different planet” and given the irreplaceable nature of such collections, it is our responsibility to preserve them for future generations. Linnie clearly loves his work caring for the collection and tells me that indeed he sees this as his duty and that he “always strives to make it better”.

He says that the Museum did at one time “reach a crossroads where it was either left or right” and that had it not been for the years of work and the funds raised by the zoology alumni, the collection could have remained boxed away indefinitely and deemed irrelevant for modern usage. With an ever-expanding college and campus space at a premium, a poorly maintained, derelict collection would have given the college little reason to even consider it as a useful resource. Through his hard work and dedication at that crucial time, Linnie has managed to safeguard its future. We have every reason to be grateful for the pivotal role he has played in the modernisation and revival of the collection which, without his intervention, may still be boxed away in the attic of the Zoology Building. Recently brought ‘back to life’, it can once again be appreciated by all while providing the opportunity for a new generation to learn about the natural world.

Ciarán Ó Cuív

Ciaran Ó Cuív is the Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Zoology student.