Dead Zoo. Dead Zoons. Zounds!
The city of Dublin emanates a shabby charm. Much of the city centre has been beautifully renovated, yet the overall impression is of a once-elegant town that saw its prime sometime before Irish independence was achieved. Or maybe it is just a place that has its corners rubbed off quickly by the rough-and-tumble of life, its paintwork scuffed and doorways chipped by too many stonking Saturday nights.
The impression of a distant grand past is also evident as you step into Dublin’s public buildings. Just off Merrion Square, beside the Dáil (the Irish Parliament), stands the National Museum of Natural History. Though not constructed on the scale of its French equivalent, this institution similarly preserves the idea of the natural history museum as the repository of biological variety and morphological complexity.
I will not attempt a detailed description and discussion of the Irish museum, since that was done twenty years ago by Stephen Jay Gould, in inimitable erudite fashion. As Gould pointed out, although the museum gives the appearance of a place frozen in time, it has in fact evolved and changed over the century-and-a-half since it was opened in 1857. But the changes have respected its initial intention, which was to exhibit the zoological diversity of Ireland and the wider world.
This demonstration of diversity has required successive generations of curatorial staff to gradually pack more and more taxidermied beasts and mounted skeletons into the museum’s tall galleries. Today, the sunlight streaming through the windows and skylights illuminates 10,000 exhibited specimens, and it is little wonder that the place has earned its local moniker: the Dead Zoo.
Gould loved the sunlight, saying that it creates “a fascinating interplay of brightness and shadow in reflecting off both specimens and architectural elements of iron struts, wooden railings, and the dark wood and clear glass of the cabinets themselves.” Trying to photograph the exhibits late on an October afternoon, I have to say that I do not fully agree with his assessment. Reflections on the glass make this place a photographer’s nightmare, and many of my images of cases were useless for the illustration of this piece.
Our on-the-ground perceptions may differ, but Gould captured the meaning of the place wonderfully “. . . the Victorian cabinet museum thrives upon an exquisite tension in commingling (not always comfortably, for they truly conflict) two differing traditions from still earlier tunes: the seventeenth-century baroque passion for displaying odd, deformed, peculiar, and “prize” (largest, smallest, brightest, ugliest) specimens — the Wunderkammer (or cabinet of curiosities) of older collectors and the eighteenth-century preference of Linnaeus and the Enlightenment for a systematic display of the regular order of nature within a coherent and comprehensive scheme of taxonomy.”
What more can I say?
text © Graham Young, 2013