Natural History Museum (Ireland)

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National Museum of Ireland - Natural History
Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann - Stair an Dúlra
Façade of the museum with trees in the foreground.
Entrance to the museum
Natural History Museum (Ireland) is located in Central Dublin
Natural History Museum (Ireland)
Location of the museum in Dublin
Established 1856
Location Merrion Street
Dublin 2
Coordinates 53°20′23″N 6°15′11″W / 53.33976°N 6.252997°W / 53.33976; -6.252997
Type National museum
Visitors 108,615 (2007)[1]
Curator Nigel Monaghan (Keeper)
Public transit access St Stephen's Green Luas
Dublin Pearse Iarnród Éireann
Dublin Bus routes: 25, 25a, 44, 61, 66, 67
National Museum of Ireland network

Ireland's Natural History Museum (Irish: Músaem Stair an Dúlra), sometimes called the Dead Zoo,[2][3] a branch of the National Museum of Ireland, is housed on Merrion Street in Dublin, Ireland. The museum was built in 1856 for parts of the collection of the Royal Dublin Society and the building and collection were later passed to the Irish State.

The Museum's collection and building have changed little since Victorian times, and it is sometimes described as a "museum of a museum." As a matter of policy, admission to the museum is free, and the Dead Zoo welcomes more than 200,000 visitors a year, with high positive feedback despite having only a tiny professional, and a share of a modest attendant, staff.

Collection and exhibits[edit]

A view from the lower section of the first floor
Galleries, closed 2007, and as of spring 2018 still not open for visitors

The Natural History Collection comprises over 2 million items, primarily in the fields of zoology and geology; more than half of the items are insect-related. 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. The main geological displays were demounted in the early 1960s to make way for further State offices around Leinster House, and most of the materials have been in crates since then, stored at Beggars Bush Barracks and other locations.[citation needed]

Among the many scientists who have studied the collections, Stephen Jay Gould did an extensive study of the specimens 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," its 10,000 exhibits provide a glimpse of the natural world that has delighted generations of visitors since the doors opened in 1857.

As the collection is unique in range and vintage, the exhibits are a product of their age, with faded and worn pelts and visible marks from bullets and rough taxidermy. Larger specimens are displayed in large, wood-framed glass cases while smaller ones are kept under glass, protected from sunlight by moveable leather panels. The main room is heated by an underfloor system similar to a Roman hypocaust.

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 line 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.

The first floor contains mammals from around the world, including extinct or endangered species, including in turn a thylacine, a quagga, and a pygmy hippopotamus.

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 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 famed glass artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (the makers of Harvard's famous Glass Flowers collection).



The Natural History building was built in 1856 to house the Royal Dublin Society’s growing collections, which had expanded continually since the late 18th century (the Society purchased one of Europe's largest natural history collections, that of Nathaniel Gottfried Leske in 1792).


The building and its displays reflect many aspects of the history and development of the collections. It was originally built as an extension to Leinster House, where the Royal Dublin Society was based for much of the 19th century. The building was designed by architect Frederick Clarendon in harmony with the National Gallery of Ireland on the other side of Leinster Lawn. The foundation stone was laid on 15 March 1856 and the building was completed in August 1857 by contractors Gilbert Cockburn & Son. It formed an annexe to Leinster House and was connected to it by a curved closed Corinthian colonnade, which once held geological specimens.

A bronze statue of Surgeon-General Thomas Heazle Parke stands in front of the Victorian-era building.


In 1877 ownership of the Museum and its collections was transferred to the State. New funding was provided for the building, and new animals were added from an expanding British empire during the great days of exploration.

In 1909 a new entrance was constructed at the east end of the building facing Merrion Street. This reversed the direction from which visitors approached the exhibitions and explains why some of the large exhibits still face what appears today to be the back of the building: it was too difficult to turn the whales and elephants around to face the new entrance.

Stairway collapse[edit]

On the morning of 5 July 2007, the 150-year-old Portland stone staircase (not accessible by the general public) gave way. Eleven people were injured,[4] as a teacher training course was underway in the area. The stairway was a very ornate structure, arising from Leinster House's former status as the home of the Royal Dublin Society. Members of same would have used what is now the back door of the museum building to gain access from Leinster House to this building, hence the grandeur of the stairway.

The building was subsequently the subject of a Health and Safety review, and following this, plans for improvements were made, which have been partially implemented. This building was closed until Thursday 29 April 2010, when the ground and first floor were reopened. The two galleries remain closed due to lack of both capital funds for new emergency exits and perhaps improvements to railings, and staff to oversee them.

Plans - 2000s[edit]

In the 2000s plans for an extension to one side of the existing building were considered, to provide more display space, and enable construction of lifts. This plan was costed at 15 million euro.

An even more ambitious plan, for a new building within the Collins Barracks complex, was also explored, and costed at about 70 million euro. All such plans were put aside after the economic collapse of 2008.

Plans - 2018-2021[edit]

The museum is included in the 2018-announced National Development Plan, with allocation for the construction of a glass-and-steel structure to one side, with modern display space, not interfering with the integrity of the historic building, an education space, a shop, a café, and lifts and other disabled-access facilitation; it might also facilitate the needed emergency egress points from the galleries.

Professional functions[edit]

Including the Keeper, there is a professional staff of just 3-4 in recent years, much smaller than in many comparable institutions, handling management, curation, classification, international cooperation and scientific advice. In particular, the museum forms part of the global scientific community handling taxonomic queries and exchanging materials and reference data. Hiring limitations in recent years have seen key posts go unfilled, sometimes being partly delivered by retired staff returning pro bono part-time, notably the former entomologist (a key role given that half the collection is of insect samples).

Governance and operations[edit]

The National Museum of Ireland has a unified organization structure and budget, with a single overall Director, a Keeper for each major collection, including Natural History, and to some extent also location, and shared registration, education, IT and administrative functions. Also shared is the facilities function, which provides the attendants for the galleries. Staffing has been severely restricted for many years, and at the Natural History Museum these limitations led to there being no educational operation for at least two years, and to the ongoing closed state of the museum shop.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-08-27. Retrieved 2010-11-25. 
  2. ^ Clerkin, Paul. "Natural History Museum, Merrion Square, Dublin". Architecture of Ireland. Archiseek. Archived from the original on 2008-11-20. Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  3. ^ Hoque, Abeer (2006-05-27). "Notes on Dublin". The Daily Star. Retrieved 2009-05-28. 
  4. ^ "11 injured as museum staircase collapses". RTÉ News. RTÉ. 2007-07-05. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 

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