Natural History Museum
Just two years before Charles Darwin published his famous work, ‘The Origin of Species’, the Natural History Museum in Merrion Street was opened to the public for the first time in 1857. Now, as then, it educates and inspires, leaving us feeling small and humbled amidst the vast and wondrous diversity of life on display.
This museum of museums is famous for its Victorian cabinet style, which houses one of the world’s finest and fullest collections still to be seen today. Two million species, of which roughly half are insects, live side by side with, appropriately for a natural history museum, decorated and sculptured panels depicting mythological figures. This zoological museum encompasses outstanding examples of wildlife from Ireland and the far corners of the globe, some to be seen today and others long extinct.
To the National Museum of Ireland, it is just a 15-minute walk away from Dublin Citi Hotel. They open their doors from Monday to Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., on Sundays from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m.
Collection and exhibits
The Natural History Collection comprises over 2 million items, in the fields of zoology and geology; a million of the specimens being insects. There was previously also a botanical collection but this was transferred to the National Botanic Gardens in 1970. As with many other natural history museums, the majority of specimens are not on display, for example, the geological collections. In 1962, a building known as the “Annexe”, which housed the main geological displays was demolished to make way for the Dáil Éireann restaurant and office, leading to these collections being placed in storage in buildings in Beggars Bush and elsewhere since. Among the many scientists who have studied the collections, Stephen Jay Gould did an essay based on the Irish elk in the museum.
The museum building is a ‘cabinet-style’ museum designed to showcase a wide-ranging and comprehensive zoological collection and has changed little in over a century. Often described as a “museum of a museum,” the exhibitions display 10,000 specimens from around the world.
The Irish Room, the ground floor of the museum, displays Irish animals, notably several mounted skeletons of giant Irish deer. Numerous skulls of those and other deer lines the walls. Stuffed and mounted mammals, birds, fish — and insects and other animals native to or found in Ireland — comprise the rest of the ground floor. Many of the specimens of currently extant animals, such as badgers, hares, and foxes, are over a century old. A basking shark hangs from this ceiling. This grouping of Irish fauna in one room dates from 1910, when the collections were arranged by geography rather than purely taxonomy.
The first floor contains mammals from around the world, including extinct or endangered species, including in turn a thylacine, and a pygmy hippopotamus. Also on display is the polar bear shot by Admiral Sir Francis Leopold McClintock. Many of the mounted specimens were purchased from or donated by the Royal Zoological Gardens, Dublin. Part of the large collection of Irish birds bequeathed by Richard Barrington is mounted along one wall.
The Lower Gallery, closed to general access since 2007, contains bird specimens from around the world. Above this, the second ceiling suspends a humpback whale and fin whale skeleton. This floor includes a composite dodo skeleton, from Mauritius.
The Upper Gallery, also closed since 2007, displays invertebrate and marine specimens including the Museum’s collection of Glass Sea Creatures made by the glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (the makers of Harvard’s famous Glass Flowers collection). Numerous game heads can be seen mounted on pillars from the first floors up to the upper gallery, many of which were presented to the museum in the 1930s.