Escaping from yet another Dublin shower today I found myself in the Dead Zoo. I’ve fond memories of the Natural History Museum here, a museum of a museum with it’s moth eaten specimens leering out of wooden case after wooden case but it’s been closed for the last couple of years. A tour of teachers, being shown the academic potential of somewhere that has never been anything other than educational, almost came a cropper when a back staircase collapsed under the weight of years.
It was closed immediately and remained so for years while it was made safe for a modern, and more litigious, public. It finally reopened in April of this year, although the upper floors, with their cases of bugs and fishes will remain closed until someone can work out how to install wheelchair access to the Victorian building and deal with the problem of railings that are far too low for today’s obviously lemming like masses.
Natural history museums of their nature tend to hark back to an earlier age of discovery. The golden age of entomological specimen gathering was in a time when people didn’t worry about endangered species and cut a murderous swathe through most of the animal population of the globe. Bats with desiccated wings like onion skins, baby birds frozen in moth-eaten anticipation of food that never came and elephants with visible stitches fixing a premature disembowelling don’t fit easily with our queasy modern sensibilities. Death imitating life can be a bizarre and macabre sight with fatal bullet wounds and sword marks carefully patched for display and family groups made up of animals that were born in different corners of the globe.
You won’t find multi media exhibits in the Dead Zoo or interpretive exhibitions aimed at progressive education, Dublin’s Natural History Museum is frozen in time … and all the better for it.
There are few places you can go today where you are effectively stepping back into time, into a different way of thinking, another age. The museum was set up in 1857 to house the Royal Dublin Society’s growing collection of entomological specimens. Dr Livingstone himself spoke at it’s inauguration. The cases of international species on the first floor record, not just a search for knowledge but also the growth of an Empire. As the British flag crossed more of the globe so the carcasses started to arrive from more far flung places.
I’ve been researching my family tree recently. My dad’s family were in India before the British Raj working for the East India Company. Looking into the glass eyes of an Indian deer today I realised it had been alive, had been running away from the hunter across a parched landscape when my grandfather was a small boy somewhere on the same subcontinent. For a second it was a window into my own history. Just for a second. The Indian deer was straddling a stuffed fawn that had made the move from the living zoo to the dead one some time at the turn of the 20th Century.
Elsewhere the Victorian zeal for categorization is exemplified in a wall of glass frames housing the impressive collection of R.M. Barrington. Mr Barrington, whose picture sits on the wall beside his life’s work was the author of the snappily titled The Migration of Birds as observed at Irish Lighthouses and Lightships.
On the back wall the skeletons of man and his closest relatives quietly proclaimed it’s faith in evolution while a nearby display showed our ascent through a parade of skulls passing through several million years of history. Incongruously between them was the case of Pepper’s Ghost, a giant fish caught in 1861. It was thought to be the largest trout ever caught until it was denounced by the Department of Fisheries a century later as an oddly marked salmon. Pepper’s Ghost was relegated to a corner of the first floor, it’s usurper getting pride of place in the Irish collection of the floor below.
There are very few places like the Dead Zoo left. Most have moved into the new century with interactive displays for children and the whole multi media experience. Here in Dublin the most you’ll get are a couple of cabinets with drawers you can pull out, but if you’re looking for video presentations and a cafe you’re in the wrong place. This is a museum of a different time and it’s a credit to the National Museum that the place has been left as such. Where else can we step back in time and see things as our grandparents saw them?