Old is as Old Does: Natural Museum of Ireland

There are many approaches to showing people the zoological wonders of the world. Documentaries, funny clips on YouTube, maybe magazines like National Geographic, but one of the best ways, in my opinion, to give people a true idea of what lives in this world is to see something in person. A pretty obvious idea, as “seeing is believing,” but there’s something really to be said with that. However, the average family these days may not have access to extinct animals, nor have the money to go to Borneo to see flora and fauna there. This is where the humble natural history museum comes in. As I’ve discussed before with other museums, there are a few ways to teach people about the world, and in the modern age, interactivity is key. The stereotypical dark and dusty shelves and cramped halls full of threadbare animals is no way of interesting people in an electronic age. This, unfortunately, is largely the impression I got from the Natural History Museum of Ireland.

It’s an old institution, beginning in the 1870’s, and the building it sits in now being around since 1890, and it shows. Don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely halls, but cramped, awkward to navigate, and seemingly unconcerned with throngs of oblivious mobile users.

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Apologies for the blurriness, but it was a common issue due to poor lighting throughout the rooms.
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This looks like a hallway, but it is actually just another part of the same hall in the first picture, just separated by the display cases on the left.

There is something to halls like this. An antique charm, just as curious as the exotic animals they hold. The floors creak and groan, you have to snake your way around display cases, and it does allow you to see some good angles on some of the specimens that would be impossible if they were just lined up on the wall.

But it was cramped. I went on a rainy Sunday morning, which was the perfect time for parents to go with children and hopeful artists to sketch a myriad of little beasties. Both were frustrating, bordering on infuriating. Loose children were banging on glass cases, some of the people sketching were sitting on chairs directly in front of some display cases, almost completely blocking anyone else’s access -never mind view- of anything inside.

It’s hard to entirely blame the museum for its layout, I actually consider some of it refreshingly bold and open, but it was also a concern. One display with a sea elephant is almost completely unprotected, and one couple taking selfies backed into it quite hard, rocking it on its base. They didn’t seem to care or notice, and went on their merry way. Infuriating.

In addition, I know a little bit about the struggles to  preserve old samples, and the lack of adequate temperature/humidity sensors and seals in many natural history archives, but this collection… This collection was kind of sad. Many, many samples were very threadbare or were taxidermied poorly in the first place. Many were peeling, missing chunks, or otherwise decaying. The rhino on exhibit had a gaping hole where its horn should have been, and a hanging basking shark in the second hall was in extremely sad shape. 20170212_150444

I hate to keep the negatives coming, but here we go. A fair portion of the second hall was also under construction, though there are apparently plans of renovating and updating the building into a far better state, for both safety and presentation. This leads to my biggest disappointment. Apparently due to poor safety standards (and being a hall built at a time were “disability access” would be largely unheard of), the second and third floors of the main hall were off-limits.

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Second and third floor halls can be seen wrapping around the whole building.

This is what broke my heart a bit. There were many amazing-looking things to see, but to have them so close, yet so far away, was extremely disappointing.

I must now point out that this museum was free to enter. It’s apparently something of a hallmark of Irish museums, and could certainly go to explain the poor condition of the facility. I also know that funding can be difficult at best, so I’m trying to give the museum the benefit of the doubt, because there are some really nice points, which I’m finally going to get to. First of all, the two upper floors are off-limits, but they can still be seen. In a very appreciated show of openness, the museum’s website has an interactive 360-degree map of the museum floors, including the two closed-off levels. So you can go around and more or less see everything that you were missing before. This is a wonderful thing to give online.

A small and personal note of appreciation goes towards the hexapod section. The insects. In many museums, even rather good ones, insects are largely presented on massive boards, often collected and pinned in the 1900’s, that’s just a smattering of various orders of insects. Butterflies put with locusts put with beetles put with mantises. Hard to parse and de-clutter, really. The Natural Museum of Ireland has a collection of insects all separated into their respective orders, and allows you to see the variations in that order unfettered by other unrelated examples.

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Getting a photo of a half-hallway’s worth of cases wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped.

This leads into the last stretch that I wish to cover. Interactivity and engagement. What does this museum do to engage its patrons more than a sort of organic art gallery? Sadly this museum, with its inherently older design, didn’t do much with this. It seems there are some workshops and educational classes available, but this isn’t something the average person is going to see, notice, or likely care much about (with all respect due to these wonderful kinds of programmes). In the second, smaller hall, they had a couple cabinet-like boxes set up in the middle walkway which allowed you to look inside and see some bones or materials about certain biological facts or loose tie-ins to creatures found in/around Ireland.20170212_145214

That actually is one thing worth noting: there was a large amount of wildlife found in/around Ireland. More than I’ve seen in some other museums, to its credit.

And really, that was about it for interactivity. I hope with the upcoming renovations and repairs that they’ll also modernise their displays for a more tech-obsessed audience. I’m not sure how secure or reliable their funding is, as they have free admission, but to maintain its relevance and impact to the people of Ireland (and abroad), engaging people and streamlining its display designs may be something worth changing for the benefit of everyone yet to come.

I’m afraid this was more negative than I wished it to be, but there were so many little issues with the museum that it can’t really be helped. Beautiful in how old and stereotypical it is (honestly!), but the poor state of many samples and the often ill-lit and cramped spaces made for a less-than-relaxing experience. Perhaps this can be solved in a few short years with the renovations being planned, but until then, it’s sort of a weird, self-referential monument; a dusty, outdated, ancient facility built to house a collection of dusty, ancient specimens often collected via outdated means in a bygone era. There’s something satisfyingly poetic about that.

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