If you look up any major university, you will see they have a zoological museum. If you look up any major country, you will find they have a natural history museum. Ireland is no different. Our own campus, here at Trinity College, Dublin is no different. Now, I ask you in earnest, when was the last time you went to the Irish Natural History Museum? If you are Irish or a Dublin native, chances are you visited the museum as a kid, on a school trip or a family day out. Whether you have been since, is what I’m interested in.
“Despite being a STEM student studying biological sciences, who spent her last summer working at Trinity College’s Zoological museum, I must admit that I hated the Natural History Museum when I was a child”
The last time I visited the Natural History Museum was two weeks ago upon a desire to write this article. Despite being a STEM student studying biological sciences, who spent her last summer working at Trinity College’s Zoological museum, I must admit that I hated the Natural History Museum when I was a child. The best part of visiting the Dead Zoo (as it is so aptly named) was the part where we left. The hoards of other children and their families all sweating in the summer heat in rooms with windows shuttered closed, carcasses and cabinets that seemed to produce dust like dandruff rather than just aerially gathering it and the mind-numbingly boring pursuit of looking at dead things. Not to appear too cynical, but the horrible reality is that if I wanted to see a dead fox, I could just go for a drive on the motorway.
Safe to say, a trip to the Dead Zoo was long overdue and with a new perspective founded by my recent experience at the trinity College Zoological museum, I made the journey of approximately 400 metres from College to the Museum (there is really no excuse not to go when you spend at least four years of your life traipsing around a campus about five minutes away from the place). When I arrived I was struck by just how little the place had changed. Even the Dead Zoo itself is aware of this:“The Museum was built in 1856 to hold the collection of the Royal Dublin Society. The collection has been growing ever since but its displays have changed little”. I didn’t realise dead animals could look any more dead. Again, to quote the museum itself: “The building has been called a ‘museum of a museum’.”Having got over this realisation, I opened my notebook to jot down what every good state of rational confusion requires, a pros and cons list. As I walked around, it was clear there were a lot of pros. There’s a lot of stuff in the place, so it’s hard to say that there isn’t something for everyone. Unfortunately, the first floor was closed for renovations (which seeks to make the space more accessible), but the ground floor had enough bits to keep me busy for about 30 minutes or so. They’ve got everything from Ordovician, Silurian, and Devonian fossils to about a million cabinets of tiny creepy crawly critters. There was a mix of mostly old displays with some more modern ones scattered around the place.
“Not too long ago I visited the natural history exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. While the exhibition itself was almost indubitably more interactive, informative, and modern than anything I had ever experienced in our Dead Zoo, I couldn’t help but notice how little Scottish wildlife was displayed”
What struck me was the Irish focus of all the displays. The whole ground floor is the Irish Fauna exhibition, but there’s far more Irish specimens than just fauna. The legacy of the ocean that split paleozoic Ireland into the Gondwana-half and the Avalonia-half is preserved in the fossils contained within delicate glass cases. Fragments of the ancient tracks of the first tetrapod to leave water and enter land can be seen in the exhibition; the importance of this, an evolutionary landmark, happening on Valentia Island cannot be understated. Remembering one of Europe’s most significant megafauna – the skeletons of the Irish Elk or Giant Irish Deer are the first thing you notice when entering the room and couldn’t be missed even if you tried. Although not unique to Pleistocene Ireland, their abundant preservation in Irish peat bogs designated their status as one of the country’s most beloved ancient animals.
Not too long ago I visited the natural history exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. While the exhibition itself was almost indubitably more interactive, informative, and modern than anything I had ever experienced in our Dead Zoo, I couldn’t help but notice how little Scottish wildlife was displayed. Having thought about it since, I now consider it a big missed opportunity in not doing so. Our Natural History Museum may not be as informative or appealing as others, but it succeeds in celebrating the beauty of animal life on this little island that they, and we, call home. Surely an emphasis on what makes Irish wildlife uniquely Irish, is what a tourist might find most interesting?
“Despite all its archaic displays and a much-needed update, the Dead Zoo has used their space to highlight the disastrous impact of human-induced climate change”
Having said this though, surely the idea of exhibitional function is something that goes much further than showing tourists neatly assembled puzzles of animal bones and pretty butterflies on toothpicks that they can take pictures of? Beyond tourism, what is the purpose of natural history museums today? For school trips and education? As the setting for family fun films starring Ben Stiller? Is it for scientific research or for silent discos? All the above are applicable but now more than ever, the place of natural history museums in modernity reflects the ongoing climate and biodiversity crisis in our world. Last year in an interview with the BBVA Foundation, Director of the Natural History Museum London, Doug Gurr commented on this by saying: “We’re some of the only institutions that can solve this crisis. Because we have science, we have public communication and that’s unusual, you don’t often find scientific research institutes with public communication and we have trust. And if you bring all those things together, I think we are some of the only institutions in the world that can do what we like to describe as ‘create advocates’. Advocates inspire people to care and inspire people to take action.”
Despite all its archaic displays and a much-needed update, the Dead Zoo has used their space to highlight the disastrous impact of human-induced climate change. Scattered around the museum are reminders of the pollution to habitats and wildlife around the world, but more specifically, the destruction closer to home. As they themselves put it: “The stories told may be upsetting for some people, but they tell a truth that is important to hear”. Such a story, of how we are destroying our planet and everything on it, is undoubtedly a very important one to share.