Dead Zoo: 20,000 animal specimens removed ahead of repair works

Emptying Natural History Museum’s upper two floors took 10 months

One of the whale skeletons which had to be removed bone by bone

One of the whale skeletons which had to be removed bone by bone


Some 20,000 animal specimens have been removed from Dublin’s Natural History Museum ahead of roof repairs.

It took the museum’s workers, along with specialist contractors from the Netherlands, 10 months to clear the upper two floors of the colloquially named “Dead Zoo”, packing away for safe keeping everything from ants to zebras.

The 19th Century skeletons of a 20m (66ft) long fin whale and a juvenile humpback whale were among the exhibits removed bone by bone to facilitate the urgent repairs of the Victorian roof at the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History. Their frames had been suspended from the glass ceiling of the 165-year-old building on Merrion Square, which housed approximately two million items.

The repair work forms part of a €15 million plan to upgrade the museum and to construct a new extension with a cafe and additional storage areas and lifts. The museum’s upper two floors have been closed to the public since 2007 following the collapse of a limestone staircase that year.

Nigel Monaghan, keeper of the Natural History Museum, said the 10-month removal project has been “big and complicated”.

“We have been moving 20,000 objects and some of them haven’t been moved for over 100 years,” he explained.

Mr Monaghan kept natural history fans updated on the progress of the dismantling works via an online “Dead Zoo diary”. He noted the difficulties of “decapitating” an 11,000-year-old giant deer, whose skeletons contain “hidden bolts and wedges” and whose skulls have to be “wriggled off the steel bar that runs through the spine”.

In April the team of experts deployed a crane to remove a four-metre tall taxidermied giraffe via a first-floor window. The giraffe, named Spotica, had been brought into the museum in three parts in 2003 and assembled in situ, but it had to be removed in one piece on this occasion, Mr Monaghan said. He said many of the dead animals are being stored temporarily in very cold temperatures in shipping containers for preservation purposes.

Key to a successful operation was months of planning and discussions with world-renowned experts, he said. “We had fewer surprises because of all that advance work and prep. The Dutch company contracted has actually already taken apart several whale skeletons before,” he added.

While some of the large mammals required cranes and winches, Mr Monaghan said many of the smaller species were “delicate and brittle” to handle.

“Most of them were not as exciting, but everything had to be carefully wrapped and packed,” he said.

The museum will remain closed to the public until further notice, while the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo, and the museum of Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks in Dublin reopened last month.

It is hoped the Natural History Museum’s lower floors may be able to reopen to the public when scaffolding for the roof repairs has been fixed in place.