'Dead Zoo' is back in business


The preserved animals, birds and insects in the National History Museum have delighted and horrified visitors for generations. Now, after a three-year break, they’re coming back, writes DICK AHLSTROM

IT’S BACK, complete with a new moose and a fresh zebra. The Natural History Museum reopens to the public next week after a three-year closure.

Long a favourite museum of children and adults, it is full of preserved animals, birds, and insects, hence the museum’s popular nickname, the “Dead Zoo”.

The collapse of a heavy stone staircase in 2007 forced the museum’s closure and there followed a major repair and refit which has cost an estimated €470,000, according to keeper of the Natural History Museum, Nigel Monaghan.

The closure had initially been viewed as an opportunity to use €15 million in National Development Plan money to build a major extension and install a lift, classroom and display area. Unfortunately, the closure came just as the Government’s heavy cutbacks began, and so the extension will have to wait, Monaghan says.

Even so, there are significant improvements, many of them related to health and safety. but also more seating, a small reading area and a carpeted ground floor area where young students can work on projects and handle exhibits.

More importantly for those who love the old-fashioned feel of the place – given it has remained virtually unchanged since it was opened in 1857 – the museum layout has been left largely untouched during the improvements, Monaghan says.

“There is hardly any animal missing and I would defy anyone to spot what is missing or has been moved,” he says.

The ground floor still houses the Irish collection with its towering giant Irish deer skeletons, glass cabinets showing native birds and mammals and lower display unit holding insects.

The one addition is the carpeted space which will be served by “activity carts” stocked with hands-on exhibits for younger visitors, Monaghan says.

The changes now allow visitors to leave the lower floor through the rear of the building via formerly locked doors leading onto the imposing stone double staircase – the one that triggered all the changes – to the upper museum level.

The huge upper display area still houses favourites such as the stuffed elephants, the giraffe, the walrus and big cats. There are monkeys and apes, hippos and elks – and the giant skeletons of a humpback and a fin whale still hang from the ceiling as before.

They acquired a “fresh” zebra given the old one had faded badly and the museum added a moose to the collection. “We bought a new moose, but Sarah Palin didn’t shoot it,” Monaghan notes.

It won’t be apparent to visitors, but this upper floor has seen many changes related to the comprehensive health and safety audit carried out after the stair collapse. A steel mesh now protects visitors should any of the large glass panels in the ceiling loosen and fall.

Ultraviolet light screening has also been installed to reduce damage caused to the displays, Monaghan adds. “We will not be replacing fading taxidermy any more.”

The refit did however require one major and regrettable change, the public will no longer have access to the three storeys of balcony display cases that ring the upper reaches of the first floor.

Visitors could not be evacuated from these balconies quickly enough to satisfy fire safety requirements, Monaghan says. The railings along the original cast-iron cantilevered balconies were also thought too low for proper public safety.

Researchers will be able to reach these balconies but the public will no longer have access, excluding them from the main displays of the exquisite Blaschka glass models of sea animals amongst other things.

Even so, there is still plenty to see and do in the two main floors which contain thousands of exhibits. There is a section displaying early human ancestors which is right up to date with a model skull of the “hobbit” Homo floresiensis. This is where you can also see a preserved human brain.

All the museum staff are very excited about the opening day, set for next Thursday, he says. And while the museum has yet to get its extension, “We have achieved a lot with what we spent,” he adds. “It will be great to hear young voices in here again.”

The Natural History Museum opens next Thursday and admission is free. It is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-5pm and Sunday from 2pm-5pm. It is closed Mondays and bank holidays