THE Natural History Museum of Ireland, or as it’s been affectionately known to countless generations, The Dead Zoo (RTÉ1, Monday), is likely the only place you’ll ever hear someone bellow into their mobile phone: “I’ll call you back. I’m in the middle of moving a whale.”
For those of us born in the heart of Dublin, the wonderful listed building, home to 10,000 specimens, some dating back to the mid-19th century, is as emblematic of our city and its history as St Stephen’s Green or the Ha’penny Bridge.
For a kid, a visit to the museum is practically a rite of passage. My father took me and my brother there when we were boys. His father, I imagine, also took him. I took my own daughters there when they were little.
Like every youngster before and since, they were awed by most of the exhibits, especially the gigantic Irish elk skeletons, which are fuel to the engine of a child’s imagination, and a little disturbed by a few of the smaller ones.
Even as an adult, should you find yourself caught in the rain alone on Merrion Square with an hour to kill, there’s no better way of killing it than by walking among the silent, watchful inhabitants of the Dead Zoo. They’re invariably better company than the noisy creatures who dwell next door in Leinster House.
The museum has been closed to the public for renovations since 2020. This is the point at which Paul Duane’s lovely bank holiday treat of a documentary, elegantly narrated by Brian Gleeson, begins.
The museum, inaugurated in 1857 and looking now much the same as it looked more than 100 years ago, may be a wondrous place — “like a child’s toybox”, as Gleeson’s voiceover puts it, albeit a slightly macabre one — but it’s also, says Nigel Monaghan, its keeper for more than half of his 40-year career until his retirement last month, “falling apart, basically”.
There’s no insulation and a lot of air circulates. The building has a moth problem. The exhibits might be dead as doornails, but they’re edible to one tiny creature or another.
The renovation — a four-year project that continued during Covid-19 lockdown — has to start with repairing the glass roof. But before that can be done, thousands of exhibits need to be moved out of the building to an offsite storage facility.
It’s a huge, complicated and often hazardous job that calls for specialists. The team assembled here — curators, conservators, art handlers, building workers more used to working outdoors — are often as colourful as the creatures preserved in glass cabinets.
“Moving taxidermy is like moving furniture,” says senior curator Paolo Viscardi. Push, pull, out the door and into the truck. The game heads, which either came from stately homes or were donated by gentlemen hunters, are under-the-arm jobs.
The toughest challenges come from the smallest exhibits and the biggest ones. The former are the Blaschka models, exquisite glass representations of sea creatures created by father and son master craftsmen Leopold and Ralph Blaschka in Dresden, Germany, between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. They’re beautiful, fragile things and the museum’s collection includes some of the rarest the Blaschkas made. Just watching Paolo carrying tray after tray of the models to a storage room is nerve-wracking.
As for the biggest exhibits, they’re the two whale skeletons suspended from the museum’s ceiling. It’s extraordinary to think that the larger of the two, a massive fin whale, died in Bantry Bay in 1851, when the Famine was still raging and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick had just been published.
The job of dismantling the skeleton, portions of which had been recreated using plaster of Paris and wood as the whale was already decomposing when the taxidermist got to it, falls to specialist whale dismantler Mickel van Leeuwen, whose career was forged in childhood after he brought home a dead rat squirrel one day.
This operation takes up the biggest segment of the documentary, and it’s riveting — and sometimes tense — to watch.
The museum’s ground floor reopens to the public today (it’s free but you have to book). But there are still 3,000 objects to be moved and two years’ work to go before the beloved Dead Museum comes fully back to life.