“An object is only as good as its story”

The hidden wonder of the Zoological museum

Holed up in the Brutalist classrooms of the sixties Arts Block, or fluorescent labs in the glass-covered TBSI, the old-world charm Trinity teases as one walks into its entrance feels to many an unfulfilling deception. It’s a struggle to imagine that the ground one is walking on — particularly in the blocky, uninspiring science end — was the earth treated by Victorian poets, opulent elites of the British Empire and politicians in powdered wigs, listening to news of Bonaparte and peasant revolt rather than data breaches and polluted oceans.

But though the expansion of campus has been dominated by practicality, hidden within Trinity, remnants of the old world continue to linger, and in the case of the Zoological museum, revive themselves as wells of learning.

I sat down with the museum curator Martyn Lynnie, to discuss the building quickly becoming the epitome of Dublin’s ‘hidden gems’. His wealth of passion and knowledge soon painted the atmosphere of the plain office into a colourful tapestry as he wove the story of how such an eclectic oddity formed within Trinity.

The museum has its origins in the mid-1700s expeditions of Captain James Cook, the infamous British navigator and Royal Navy captain, to Polynesia. . Trinity established the Dublin University Museum in 1777, originally over Regent House, to display Polynesian artifacts from the voyage — headdresses, weapons and other artifacts of art and culture. As Martyn describes it, museums within universities were highly coveted at the time as symbols of knowledge, but also wealth and prosperity.

Other specimens were sold to the museum — it was a time of exploration, and specimens were mostly sourced from individual collectors bringing back ‘curiosities’ from their travels. By the early 19th century the collection was predominantly zoological, and overflowing in its original housing, the Zoological building we see today was built in 1876.

Martyn made sure to emphasise how indicative this was of the Victorian passion for natural history — at the time, Trinity did not teach zoology and the building’s sole purpose was to display the collection. The era was the ‘renaissance of collecting’, with the public thirsty for knowledge of the natural world and filling houses with taxidermied birds and collections of Lepidoptera.

Over time the museum’s collection expanded into what we see today — though Martyn claims 27000 specimens is modest, the quality is incredible. Its standout pieces include a Tasmanian tiger, mastodon teeth, moa bones and its jewel in the crown, the Great Auk — all sharing a common feature: extinction. In the naturalists’ eyes, they were the result of a too-slow adaptation to the changing world. And the museum that housed them soon seemed fit to join them.

As times moved on, universities and the studies they offered began to narrow and emphasise specialised research, leaving the wide-ranging collections of what seemed to be surface-level oddities unable to compete for space with with the new hallmarks of progress, classrooms and laboratories. From the 1940’s onwards, museums began to dissipate, with collections being bundled up with moth balls and spread across storage facilities. The Zoological museum was no exception and went into serious decline until a breaking point was reached during the 80’s and a final decision had to made on its future.

This is where Martyn and his passion for the museum enters the picture. With the help of generous alumni, both him and his son raised enough funds to restore the specimens and cabinets to their former glory. Yet the physical restoration was only part of the story: bringing the objects to life was the next step.

Though it appears museums have seen their peak, these humble few floors are experiencing their own renaissance in the revitalisation of the specimens for education and research of both the past and future.

It becomes clear from talking to Martyn that the wealth of knowledge and history hidden behind the specimens is too vast and fascinating to be confined to a ‘block of text beside a glass case’ as he puts it, claiming ‘any museum will have an elephant or rhino, what makes us different is we are interactive — people will tell you the stories behind it; it has no text.’ There may be many elephant skeletons, but only one of Prince Tom, who was gifted to Queen Victoria’s son by the founder of Nepal’s Rana Dynasty. Whether it be a rhino donated by Lord Trevelyan (of The Fields of Athenry fame) or intricate glass anemones crafted by a father and son team with techniques they brought to the grave, the museum holds worlds that seemed to only live between the covers of Conan Doyle books.

Whilst the past is celebrated, it is not its end goal. Martyn describes its three pillars as ‘teaching, research and outreach’. The museum operates on a dichotomy where the knowledge of the past fuels knowledge of our future — in his words, ‘museums are sources of information, not just pretty things to look at.’

Scientifically, DNA can be recovered from specimens, but more importantly the collections serve as a historical reference of biodiversity of regions across Ireland. The scientific method calls for controls in any experiment, however when studying the impacts of anthropogenic forces like climate change, deforestation and urbanisation, controls are difficult to create — we don’t have a second, untouched Earth to compare our own to. However, we do have  records of pre-industrialised Earth in pollen records, ice cores, and, in the museum’s case, detailed catalogues of Irish fauna from bygone times, serving as reservoirs of information to understand what we have done, and are doing, to our environment.

The museum’s popularity is evident, going from 800 visitors in its first opening 4 years ago, to 10,000 this year. And the focus on the future grows with them. Walking into the museum the children, adults and students alike all have their hands filled with specimens, questions and ponderings on what led them to be stuffed or dessicated rather than decomposed in the soil of a virginal forest. One of the first displays upon entering the museum is a case of human ancestors, hollowed eyes and fragmented bones are all that remain of their lives. Reflected in their glass case is us, it’s not a stretch to imagine humanity on a shelf, as cheekbones and shins with a story waiting to be told of our invasive blight, or redemption.