The Dead Zoo – The Irish Natural History Museum, Dublin

The Natural History Museum, Dublin. Tequila, the RUC, Aliens and Kamikaze fish. It’s got it all…


In a previous blather piece we had bored the pants off of you regarding a certain statue outside the The Natural History Museum on Merrion Street, Dublin. As interesting as that story is, it’s not half as interesting as what lies inside…

The museum has long been the source of fascination and anecdote for Dubliners and visitors alike. Affectionately referred to as the ‘Dead Zoo’ by locals, it has become as famous in recent years for its authentic Victorian feeling as it has for its astounding collections.

The Dead Zoo

Claims have often been made that Natural History Museum Dublin, or ‘The Dead Zoo’ as Dubliners affectionately call it, is somehow untainted, unblemished and unchanged since it’s inception and opening in the 1850’s. The truth is somewhat more hazy and makes interesting reading. The reality of the Dead Zoo is that of a museum which has undergone seismic changes in its displays, notably in the increased scientific classification of its exhibitions.

This is not to say that the museum was in some sense unscientific when the great Dr. Livingstone officially opened its doors in 1857, but rather under the care and protection of generations of devoted Keepers of Natural History (the latest of which Is Dr. Nigel Monaghan), the museum has become a fantastical walk-through encyclopaedia of the Natural World.

The ground floor is called the Irish Room and deals with all manner of beasts and birds found in, above, below and around the island of Ireland. The first floor and the adjoining two galleries above it are the World Collection and this is where the ‘Gentleman’s Club’ feeling comes into play (more of that later).

Kamikaze specimens

There is a multitude of strange and often downright bizarre oddities stashed away in the museum’s antique display cases. Some are tiny in size and are difficult to find. Many are hidden in corners, tucked away behind pillars, lurking in the shadows and skulking in the half-light, almost as though afraid to show themselves in case their unique and often disturbing eccentricity should be discovered.

So where to begin’ Well, a good talking point in the museum has always been the kamikaze eels. Yes you read that correctly, the kamikaze eels.

This loveable pair can be difficult to locate at first, but when you do eventually find them you wonder how in the name of God you ever missed them, representing as they do one of the weirdest spectacles ever seen in a museum. It’s like this: there are two eels, in two distinctive and separate glass jars, preserved for posterity in their glass formaldehyde coffins.

The punter on the left has died in a gallant attempt to swallow a fellow eel. His pickled companion to the right has popped his clogs in an equally valiant, but fatal, attempt to swallow a frog in one industrious mouthful. Unfortunately neither of the eels got anywhere near the digestion stage, but rather opted to violently choke to death on these, their last abortive meals.

The sight of the unfortunate frog’s legs protruding out of the mouth of the enterprising eel is, in a rather macabre sense, downright hilarious. I suspect it’s just the kind of material that Gary Larson, the creator of The Far Side comic strip, would kill to get his hands on.

Starstuff

There is one object on display that is most definitely not Irish. In fact it’s not even from planet Earth. This is a teeny, tiny piece of dark rock that, allegedly, is a fragment of Moon Rock brought back to terra firma by American astronauts. This was a gift to the people of Ireland from the late great President Richard Milhouse Nixon.

Apparently, he was so enamoured with the Emerald Isle that he sent a piece of Moon Rock to us by way of an affectionate token. Due to Nixon’s later and more infamous activities, some have cynically commented upon and questioned the authenticity of the rock. The curators of the Natural History Museum assure me of its authenticity. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

The rock was retrieved from the Taurus Littrow valley of the Moon during the Apollo XXII mission (December 7th-19th, 1972) and was presented to the people of the Republic in 1973 as “a symbol of the unity of human endeavour and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace.” The Moon Rock is mounted in a small glass sphere in the centre of a case.

In an amusing incident which one of the curators overheard, two children were looking at the glass sphere. One wondered aloud why the fragment was encased in glass. Her friend wasted no time in informing her that this was due to the fact that things on the moon were much lighter and that the glass sphere was to prevent the piece of moon rock from floating away’

Aliens in a museum

This case also has an assorted collection of other rocks not of earthly origin. These alien projectiles arrived here, not by the NASA express, but rather by an altogether more aggressive mechanism, which involves them unceremoniously hurling themselves (the rocks, not the astronauts) into our atmosphere, plummeting to Earth at a horrifying speed and slamming in to the Earth with a satisfied thud.

These asteroid fragments are quite small, but it is worth bearing in mind that at one point many of these would have been approximately the same size as a Volkswagen Beetle. Our atmosphere heats them to critical temperatures and beats them to a pulp as they hurtle towards us. By the time they wallop into the ground they usually end up being the size of a tennis ball.

Rarely are they left intact enough to cause the same kind of catastrophic damage as in the Tunguska impact of 1908 (see previous blather ruminations on the subject here) which wiped out a serious swathe of Siberian forest (about 60 million trees) in 1908.

Worse still there was the famous ‘KT Boundary event’ of 65 million years ago; an impact so horrendous, so biblical, that it unleashed forces destruction which eventually led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. There is an assortment of asteroid fragments here from all the corners of the earth, proving that impacts do happen, quite frequently, and without discrimination or selectivity.

Spare a thought for the RUC…

Some Irish examples of meteorite falls are also on display in this case. One famous example is the meteorite fragment that hurtled its way across England, Wales and then Northern Ireland on April 25th 1969.

Two fragments were recovered, one of which scared the life out of a group of already troubled RUC officers when it smashed through the roof of a police building at Sprucefield RUC Station, near Lisburn.

Another famous fall was on the morning of the 10th of September, 1813, when a shower, no less, of meteorite fragments bombarded the Patrickswell area of Limerick. The Limerick Chronicle of the following day reported, in suitably apocalyptic style, that there had been violent peals of thunder, accompanied by “awful appearances, large fragments of atmospheric stones and other circumstances, which indicated some very serious concussion to have taken place.”

Lest you should suspect that these are isolated events and that the cosmos is a peaceful serene place, � la Star Trek, a quick visit to the Astronomy Ireland web site should convince you otherwise.

A quick perusal of their comprehensive information files on the subject will show you that there are several pieces of rock floating around out there that would put the wind up Captain Kirk. Notably there is asteroid 1997 XF11 that has a potential impact date in 2040. Then there is the worry of asteroid 1999 RM45 that might impact with the Earth in 2042 or 2050.

Booze

Moving further on, towards the back of the Irish Room there is one more object on display, which looks suspiciously un-Irish. At least, however, it does come from our solar system. This is a very out-of-place bottle of Mexican tequila. What in the name of Livingston is a bottle of tequila doing on display in a Natural History Museum, I hear you ask. Indeed, it is a little puzzling.

Ostensibly, it claims its place on the grounds that it shows off the Maguey worm, which as any seasoned tequila drinker will inform you, is an integral and necessary part of the whole drinking tequila- splitting the worm- eating the worm- getting severely inebriated experience. What the unfortunate worm has to say about this can only be guessed at.

This particular celebrated bottle of tequila is a much-treasured gift from the proprietors of Kennedy’s pub on Westland Row to Dr. Jim O’Connor, the former Keeper of the National Museum’s Natural History Division.

Dr. O’Connor has been a patron of Kennedy’s for many years and has become possibly its most famous frequenter thanks to the fact that he discovered a new form of insect in the pub’s bathroom one evening.

Lest anyone should claim I am making this up (a despicable accusation which I have had levelled at me on more than one occasion recently) a copy of the publication about this insect can be seen framed and mounted on the wall of the snug in Kennedy’s. No, seriously.

Admission to the Natural History Museum is free. Opening hours are available here at the Museum’s website. The Museum runs guided tours, education programmes and provides a wealth of educational material for all ages. We cannot recommend a visit enough…

Collections-based Biology in Dublin (CoBiD) is a new partnership between the National Museum of Ireland and the National University of Ireland, combining resources and knowledge to advance teaching and research in macrobiology. »

damien

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


2 comments

  1. the weird alien-like fish species are the best – some look like awful scary mutants – funnily enough, most of them found off the coast of Wexford. Coincidence? I think not!

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