The Natural History Museum Dublin, past and future

A few days ago I highlighted the current state of the Natural History Museum in Dublin. Nigel Monaghan, the Keeper of the museum, contacted me and has kindly allowed me to repost a piece he wrote for Museum Ireland on the past and future of the museum. Enjoy!

The Natural History Museum
Dublin, past and future.

Nigel Monaghan

Keeper, Natural History Division,
National Museum of Ireland 

Museum Ireland 17: 48-52

The Natural History Museum
celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2007. The building houses
collections that are even older and faces challenges on a number of
fronts. The Victorian ‘cabinet style’ presentation is a major surviving
asset but the building has limitations on access for visitors and is
poor in terms of collections care. A re-development plan is in preparation
that should address the needs of the building and its users for many
years to come. 

The Royal Dublin Society (RDS)
built the Natural History Museum in 1856 to house their large and growing
collections. These were mainly scientific specimens in the disciplines
of geology and zoology. Their collections commenced in earnest in 1792
with the acquisition of the collections of minerals, rocks, fossils
and animals of Nathanael Leske (Vaccari and Monaghan 1993). The network
of RDS members extended throughout the British empire and collections
built by donation from these sources as well as by purchase from a modest
budget (O’Riordan 1983). 

Buildings housing the museum
collections in Dublin included RDS premises at Grafton Street (1767-1796),
Hawkins Street (1796-1815) and the first floor of Leinster House (from
1815). At Leinster House five of the six museum rooms were dedicated
to geology and zoology with another for antiquities and curiosities
(Wright 1825). The Natural History Museum was constructed as a separate
building to Leinster House, connected by a curved stone-faced corridor.
Arriving from Leinster House, visitors entered a hallway with a grand
stone Portland stone staircase and from there could enter through large
double doors into the exhibition galleries at ground floor or first
floor level. Today visitors enter from the opposite side of the building
at the east side adjacent to Merrion Square. The exhibition layout reflects
this earlier orientation and on upper floors is hardly altered at all
since access routes changed in 1909 (Monaghan 2005). 

The building is constructed
with a cast iron frame, largely hidden from view by timber cladding
on the upper floors. It has been altered at various stages, mainly to
improve lighting of upper levels with a change from gas to electric
light which caused the curator to complain about the ‘quality of the
flame’ in the new electric units. The suspended glass diffusion layer
forms a ceiling that was installed in 1892. This followed the transition
to state ownership in 1877 and an increase in funding dedicated to museums.
The attic space houses the original arched timber support for the roof
and various fittings survive that are related to ventilation in order
to remove fumes generated by the original gas lighting system. The main
public staircase was remodelled in 1909 to accommodate the installation
of a door at the east end. This was originally the back of the building,
hence the rather unassuming façade and the placing of trees and a statue
in this area of what was at the time the RDS garden known as Leinster

After the opening in 1857,
the building steadily filled to bursting point and museum collections
extended into a number of adjacent buildings. The construction of the
1890 museum in Kildare Street relieved some of the congestion and allowed
geological collections to be well laid out in a building beside the
Natural History Museum (Monaghan 1992). Known as ‘The Annexe’ and
housing the ‘fossil hall’ this building was demolished in 1962 to
make way for the Dáil restaurant and an office building. This was the
most significant blow to the various National Museum of Ireland buildings
in the Leinster House complex. Following the foundation of the state
in 1922 the state buildings including Leinster House and the RDS lecture
theatre became home to the new parliament. The steady growth of this
centre of power has been responsible for the loss of considerable museum
space, addressed in time by the allocation of Collins Barracks to the
National Museum of Ireland in 1994 (Monaghan 2000). The benign neglect
of the Natural History Museum has seen the survival of this museum long
after many comparable buildings and interiors have been lost throughout
Europe (Yanni 1999). 

The challenge facing the National
Museum of Ireland today is to preserve this much loved building, maintain
the Victorian ambience and provide a secure structure with 21st
century standards of public access and collections care. The first step
in such a restoration project is to establish what it is that we are
expected to preserve. The commonest response by the public when learning
of a plan to tackle the building is ‘don’t change a thing’ which
is unfortunately not an option. There are fundamental problems with
the building fabric that are a hazard to the collections and an obstacle
to visitors. The building is bathed in sunlight that bleaches exhibits
and overheats the building, the roof leaks despite regular running repairs
and there is no wheelchair access to any section of the premises. When
the instruction ‘don’t change a thing’ is teased out in detail,
it refers to the ambience, which is a difficult thing to capture (Solnit
1997). This has been broken down into a series of key elements that
contribute to the current character of the museum: 

  • It has a high density
    of objects on display
  • The furnishings
    are part of the interior and must remain
  • The taxonomic layout
    is a key element of a Victorian approach
  • There is a sense
    of discovery as visitors find their way about


The re-development plan that
addresses the physical needs of the building must ensure that these
features are not lost. It must also include: 

  • Improved fire safety
    through fireproofing and additional exit routes
  • Full access for
    wheelchairs around the building and improved pedestrian circulation
  • Control of light
  • Control of heat
    and humidity
  • Control of dust
    levels and improved air quality


In collaboration with the Office
of Public Works and a consultant architect, the Museum is working on
a Development Control Plan. This addresses the various requirements
with a number of key features: 

  • An extension building
    along the south wall of the museum in an adjacent roadway
  • A lift in the extension
    that serves all floors of the main gallery space
  • Accommodation for
    the shop, toilets, café and activity spaces in the extension
  • Replacement of the
    existing roof
  • Installation of
    full air handling with temperature and humidity control
  • Re-opening of the
    stone staircase at the original west end entrance
  • Additional exhibition
    space under the front lawn


The project plan is not yet
finalised and will require planning permission and funding before being
realised. Significant commitment was made early in 2007 with the allocation
of â¬15 million under the National Development Plan. Works will necessitate
the removal and conservation of all exhibits and refurbishment of all
display cases. The completed museum should address the requirements
of the collection and public and be a lasting monument to the efforts
of a group of Irish men and women to bring the natural world to a home

    Gould, S. J. 1994. Cabinet
    museums revisited. Natural History Magazine 1/94: 12-20.

    Monaghan, N. T. 1992. Geology
    in the National Museum of Ireland. Geological Curator 5:

    Monaghan, N. T. 2000. The
    National Museum of Ireland. In Buttimer, N., Rynne, C. and Guerin, H. 
    (eds.) The heritage of Ireland, The Collins Press, Cork, 404-412.

    Monaghan, N. T. 2005.
    Guide to the National Museum of Ireland
    - Natural History.
    National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

    O'Riordan, C. E. 1983.
    The Natural History Museum, Dublin
    . Stationery Office, Dublin

    Solnit, R. 1997. Noah’s
    alphabet. In A book of migrations: some passages in Ireland.
    Verso Books, London, 20-27.

    Vaccari, E. and Monaghan,
    N. T. 1993. E minerali di Giovanni Arduino nella collezione geo-mineralogica
    di Nathanael Gottfried Leske: verifica di un caso di comunicazione scientifica
    nell' Europa del tardo Settecento. Rome: Geologica Romana,
    : 547-565. (Italian, with English summary).

    Wright, G. N. 1825.
    An Historical Guide to the City of Dublin, illustrated by engravings,
    and a plan of the city. Second Edition, with corrections and additional
    articles, also an Itinerary and various useful information for Tourists
    and Strangers.
    Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, London.

    Yanni, C. 1999. Nature’s
    museums, Victorian architecture and the nature of display. John Hopkins
    University Press, Baltimore.

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Thanks for posting that. I grew up in Dublin and must have visited the Natural History Museum dozens of times, it was almost certainly an influence on my later decision study biology.

I'm glad to see that the much needed modernization will be undertaken with sensitivity. The museum is not only a place to explore the natural world, but also allows visitors to enter a bygone age and gain an insight into how naturalists and geologists in the 19th century, a momentous time for those sciences, viewed their world.

From the photos it looked like a wonderful place to visit.
I hope they manage to re-open it soon.