Since the foundation of the state, the Natural History Museum on Merrion Street has been starved of investment.
It’s been a blessing and a curse.
The lack of updates to the internal layout mean it’s become a museum of museum. It was built in 1856 and hasn’t changed much since 1910.
Scientific staff at the museum want to update the information on display, because visitors aren’t learning as much as they could from the dated exhibition.
But doing that while also preserving the rare condition of the display would require a carefully planned restoration project.
And a severe shortage of staff means nobody has the time for it.
Today, just two scientific staff run the museum known to many Dubliners as “the Dead Zoo”.
From Bad to Worse
Back in 1981, when the museum’s keeper, Nigel Monaghan, started working there, he had nine colleagues working with him on the science side of things.
“We never felt we were overstaffed then,” he says. “We still had plenty to do.”
But soon the museum began to suffer from cutbacks. Now the central staff consists of just two scientific staff, an education co-ordinator, and someone working on the catalogue.
They also get some support from people working for the National Museum of Ireland – which is responsible for the Natural History Museum, as well as three others.
“We really haven’t recovered from the losses in the 1980s when we lost several of those staff,” he says. “Believe it or not, money was even tighter than it is now.”
In 2005, a report on the future needs of the museum stated that “chronic under-staffing” prevented it from measuring up to comparable institutions in other European countries.
The report by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) commended the five scientific staff, which included Monaghan and the assistant keeper, Matthew Parkes, who are the pair remaining today.
Compared to countries with populations and GDPs similar to Ireland’s, the report found that the size of the staff here was miniscule.
The scientific staff of the sciences division at The Ulster Museum totaled 22, and The Oslo Museum had at least 27, it said. Denmark’s provincial natural history museum in Aarhus, which the report suggested is most like Dublin’s, had 33.
The report recommended that the numbers of technically qualified scientific staff in Dublin’s Natural History Museum more than double to 16, and that they could do with extra support staff as well.
But instead of growing, the numbers of qualified scientific staff shrank from five down to two. Together, Monaghan and Parkes maintain the collections, preserve and identify specimens, and prepare exhibitions.
What happened? The recession hit and a public-sector recruitment embargo was introduced. People left and weren’t replaced.
“Since that report, we’ve had a couple of retirements,” says Monaghan. “But we’ve recently been given sanction and we’ll be advertising shortly to replace one post.” They’ll be looking for a zoological curator.
Dwindling Numbers of Volunteers
Having such a small staff has knock-on effects for both the public exhibitions and everything behind the scenes.
Monaghan is grateful that the museum recruited an education coordinator relatively recently. She holds some events for public.
The scientists are often hidden in back rooms, immersed in their work on the collection, which is made up of over two million objects.
Because of the staff shortage, visitors miss out on learning more when they visit, but so do researchers who want to study, examine, explore and learn about the collections.
A major problem with the shortage of scientific staff is that they can’t take on as many volunteers as they used to.
In the past, the museum would take in 20 transition-year students each year. They gained some knowledge and experience, and in return they helped around the museum.
That’s not possible anymore with just two people to supervise young volunteers.
“It’s the same with more specialist adult volunteers from universities,” Monaghan says. “But we’re very restricted with what we can cope with nowadays.”
Compared to London
Andrew Jackson, who teaches zoology at Trinity College and is head of the Trinity Centre for Biodiversity Research, says the staff at the museum do a great job with the resources they have.
There are loads of interesting species, Jackson says, and by measuring skulls and examining specimens you can answer some basic scientific questions, like the shapes or sizes of birds and mammals.
“It would be nice to make more of it. Irish fauna is very unique and distinctive . . . We have a huge amount of material here that we could potentially use for research,” he says.
“I think that would need investment in terms of staff, facilities and infrastructure to let them catalogue and document etc., but we in Ireland certainly could do more with [the collection].”
Lately, Jackson has been doing work in London’s natural history museum. It employs full-time researchers, he says. “That’s definitely different to what we have in Ireland.”
But even with these staff, they can’t get through the whole collection, so they collaborate with researchers from universities, like him.
In Dublin’s museum, by contrast, there aren’t even any basic laboratory facilities for staff or visiting researchers to use. Everything has to be taken on loan.
“We’re very much hamstrung by what we can do for [researchers],” says Monaghan. “We don’t have the breadth of expertise to be able to identify the things that people send us.”
Not Living Up to Its Potential
Monaghan feels the museum isn’t living up to its full potential because of its lack of staff. As well as identifying snails and butterflies for enthusiastic gardeners, some people would be interested in a service to identify pests and invasive species.
Monaghan and Parkes help where they can, but an overloaded staff of two can’t be familiar with all the 20,000 or so plants and animals that live in Ireland.
“Ireland’s agriculture and forestry depends on everything not being eaten alive by pests and when you consider that there are in the region of 12,000 insects,” says Monaghan, “you really do need a handful of experts working with a good museum collection and a good library to be able to identify everything that could be causing damage.”
Back when the Natural History Museum had an expert on insects, he recalls hospitals sending in parasites and other creepy-crawlies for identification.
“That sort of expertise is needed at a national level,” he says. “In other countries, museums tend to be the experts in those areas . . . Here, that tends to be left to the farmers and foresters.”
Collections the world over are underused, says Jackson, and in Ireland it’s no different. He thinks there’s still plenty to be learned from the collection hosted on Merrion Street.
“We’re ever more conscious of human’s impact on the native flora and fauna and in many cases the only resources we’ve got to go on are in our museums,” he says.
With modern technology, scientists can figure out how big animals were, where they were, what they ate and what roles they played.
“With that information we could make better-informed decisions about whether to introduce a species, or what we would have to do to the habitat to facilitate the reintroduction or maintenance of a species,” he says.
Despite the small staff, the museum is improving slowly but surely, says Monaghan. The facilities behind the scenes were updated in recent years and the conditions of the areas in which the collections are kept safe have improved hugely over the last couple of decades.
In the last few years, there’s also been real progress on the collections catalogue.
Although the 2005 RIA report raised concerns about the preservation of some parts of the public exhibition, Monaghan is confident the collection won’t deteriorate.
It’s the one of the main jobs keeping the him and Parkes busy. Now that most specimens are catalogued it’s easier to keep track of what needs to be attended to.
The 25,000 jars of animals suspended in alcohol are particularly high-maintenance, because the liquid evaporates. It also takes up a lot of time to keep insects away from the stuffed, preserved animals.
“Anyone who visits and looks closely will see there’s tiny little moths flying around in the air,” says Monaghan. “If we refurbished the building, that would probably disappear as a problem.”
The building could do with some work as the balcony level, which used to display insects, has been closed off for years because there aren’t enough fire exits for the public to use it.
The Natural History Museum came within a hair’s breadth of being fixed up back in 2007. After the grand stone staircase collapsed in July of that year, the Department of Art, Sports and Tourism, as it was called at the time, decided to overhaul the building.
There was €15 million allocated for a major refurbishment and a modern extension. But as the plan came together, the recession hit and the money was no longer available.
As Monaghan sees it, if the Natural History Museum was the only institution suffering, it could campaign for change, but staff shortages and funding are issues for all museums.
Late last year, the National Library of Ireland’s annual review said it is operating with a third of the staff available to national libraries in European countries of comparable size.
And an article in the Irish Times said the National Museum of Ireland considered closures and entrance fees to cope with its inadequate funding of €11.3 million for 2015.
That is, until the government dug deep and forked over an extra €2 million.
With salaries, heating bills and the costs of maintaining historic buildings, the National Museum of Ireland’s annual funding disappears quickly, says Monaghan.
“The toilet-rolls bill is huge,” he chuckles. “Everything is gone before you actually have time to go building laboratories.”
The main source of income for the National Museum is the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, although it also has some sponsorship deals.
The Oireachtas would have to approve the introduction of entrance fees. (There’s no indication they are being considered.)
The department did not respond to queries asking if the new government would increase funding for the museum.
As Popular and as Poor as Ever
There were 300,272 visitors to the Natural History Museum in 2014, according to figures from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
This was similar to the number who went to the Chester Beatty Library and the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
The Dead Zoo is a favourite among many. Its unchanging image evokes childhood memories among any age group. So why hasn’t the government invested more in it? Monaghan says people like the museum and hope it does well, but the reality is that funding is short across the public service.
He suggests that the Irish Free-State didn’t have as much money as the British Empire and so it was hard for them to maintain the well-funded, Victorian-level institution it inherited.
“That’s why it still looks like it did in 1916,” he jokes. “If you want to experience 1916, come to our museum.”