Not so Alive, Alive O!


As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a good part of my graduate years working on specimens in the collections of the Natural History Museum in Dublin. Some readers may have read of the museum through the essay “Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive O!” in Stephen Jay Gould’s Dinosaur in a Haystack. Gould was a fan of the museum and he felt it represented the majesty of the old-style Victorian museum. This story would therefore have brought Gould much sadness. Following closure in 2007 due to the collapse of a staircase, plans to renovate the museum are now on hold and it appears the future of the museum at its current site is a little murkier than is desirable. 

As a young boy, I remember spending hours in the Museum with my father. It was dark and mysterious. You entered to encounter the skeleton of a Giant Irish Deer surrounded by those of Ireland’s extant cervids. Megaloceros was awe-inspiring to me as a kid (it still is, just in different ways!). As you moved down the entrance hall, case after case of vertebrates yielded to cases of insects. These were shielded from the light with covers that had to be removed almost ceremoniously to reveal the jewels within. Staircases lead to a second floor (see below, much brighter than it was was when I was a kid) where specimen after specimen were packed on top of each other in glass cabinets. The floorboards creaked. Higher galleries revealed birds and, on the top-most gallery, hand-blown glass models of medusae and other marine organisms created by the famed Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. It was a magical place for an aspiring naturalist.


The museum got even more magical when I got access to the study collections beyond the big doors at the back of the museum. As the natural history museum of the second city of the British Empire, many unique specimens ended up in the collections, and the strong Irish tradition of natural history kept them growing (to an eventual two-million specimens). Visiting academics from Europe and America would come to study Ireland’s unique fauna. While measuring skulls in my office, I could hear schoolchildren in the galleries. I couldn’t believe my luck in being part of such a cabinet of curiosities.


The staircase that collapsed is actually behind the scenes (near where the skulls of mustelid carnivores were stored, if I remember correctly). The real problem is that the upper floors of the  museum were not wheelchair-accessible. Renovations planned included a new extension, elevators, a shop & cafe. Total cost was €15 million and work was to take from 2007 until 2010/11. That work is now on hold with little hope of completion given the current economic climate. Whether the essential repair work is on-hold is unknown.

It would be a shame if the museum were not to re-open in its current location. It would be even more of a shame if a re-opened museum turned its back on the past and became yet another Disneyified amusement park masquerading as a museum.

There’s a Facebook group for those who care. 


5 thoughts on “Not so Alive, Alive O!

  1. I too used to be taken to this museum when I was growing up and I have similar memories of the Giant Deer skeletons. I think there is room for both types of museums although I know what you mean about the nostalgic aspect of this one. I live close to the Stockholm Natural History Museum which has gone down the modernising route. Its still OK for inspiring wonder in children but perhaps not so good for facilitating research.

  2. My wife and I attended the SVPCA in Belfast in the early eighties, then rode on my motorbike down to Dublin, where I remember visiting this museum and being completely blown away by the glass medusae and protozoa.
    It would be a tragedy if it didn’t reopen in something like its current format; it’s almost a museum of natural history museums.
    With some similarities to the NHM in Paris, I fancy.

  3. @ Rob
    I seem to remember reading somewhere that the Dublin museum did resemble that in Paris. Or at least how the museum at the Jardin Des Plantes used to be (it was closed for serious renovations last time I was in Paris and free to visit … 1990 … and I seem to remember reading that they planned on seriously “modernizing” the galleries).

  4. The Paris museum had a strange arrangement the last time I was there, two years ago. The central gallery had a Noahs ark like procession of animals crossing the gallery that looks very weird and out of place to a biologist – but probably appears enchanting to a child or an art college student (such as the one who designed the thing in the first place).

  5. When I lived in Dublin that was easily my favourite museum. Besides the unique atmosphere—including tripping over all the art students bent into weird shapes in strange locations making drawings/sketches/paintings/whatevers of the exhibits—I always found a surprise whenever I closely examined a specimen/exhibit.

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