Members Reports and Photos

SATURDAY 18th JANUARY 2014            



Behind the Scenes at the Dead Zoo
he National Museum of Ireland has its Natural History Collections Research Building at  Beggars Bush, Dublin 4.  We visited this  facility which houses “the museum behind the scenes’' and includes most collections, library and staff offices.

A large group of members assembled at the Print Museum at Beggars Bush for this visit to an area of the Natural History Museum which is not normally open to members of the public. Our guide was Nigel Monaghan who is Keeper of the Natural History division of the National Museum of Ireland.

Nigel Monaghan joined the Museum in 1981. He is responsible for the management of the national collections in the fields of zoology and geology. He is also the project leader on the redevelopment of the Natural History building in Merrion Street. He qualified as a geologist at Trinity College Dublin in 1978 and worked for the Geological Survey of Ireland mapping the bedrock geology of South Tipperary prior to his appointment to the Museum.  Like many areas of the public service the Museum has lost staff in recent years and they have not been replaced. There are now only two professional scientists in the Natural History Division.

Nigel gave us a very interesting tour of the building and gave us very many insights into the history and functioning of the Museum and some very pertinent observations at the micro and macro levels.

The former military barracks is clearly not an ideal environment for long term storage but considerable progress has been made in cataloguing and re-labelling the specimen in preparation for transferring them to a warehouse in Swords Co Dublin. At Beggar’s Bush there are a large range of specimens and artefacts including geological samples, birds, primates, mammals, fishes, snakes, foraminifera etc.  

One of the recent challenges has been the appearance of the carpet beetle Reesa vespula which has become a museum pest in Europe. Apart from carpets it is partial to dried animal tissue.  It is a parthenogenetic species. Only females are known to occur thus making control difficult as a single individual has the capacity to produce a population. A few weeks sojourn in the deep freeze is a standard museum approach to the decontamination of specimens.
 [O’Connor, J.P. 2003 Reesa vespulae (Milliron) (Col., Dermestidae), new to Ireland. Entomologist's Monthly Magazine 139: 12]

On view were some of the original archives catalogues/ledgers with entries for each specimen as it was donated to the Museum e.g. “fishes” and more recent catalogues. Most of us had never previously seen a pressed Dunlin! 
Richard M Barrington’s inspired “Migration of Birds as observed at Irish Lighthouses and Lightships including the original reports Analyses and Appendix” was on display.  Barrington (1849-1915) from Fassaroe was one of the ‘giants’ of Irish natural history. Eventually details of all of the “two million” specimens in the natural history museum are to be accessible in the museum databases as cataloguing proceeds and details are entered from the library office.

The bird collection, the egg collection and the model of the Dodo inevitable led to the discussion about extinct and flightless birds. The Museum has one of the only 20 complete skeletons in the world of the Dodo and the mezzanine galleries in Merrion Street contains skeletons of flightless birds such as the Ostrich (Struthio) and the extinct Elephant Bird (Aepoyornis). The Moa consisted of nine species (in six genera) of flightless birds endemic to New Zealand. The two largest species, Dinornis robustus and Dinornis novaezelandiae weighed 230 kg. A visit to the museum does raise interesting questions such as the ‘value’ of egg collections!  We also viewed some of the museum primate specimens which included the skulls of Howler Monkey and Mandrill.

The Joseph Wright collection of foraminifera slides reminded us of the very significant contributions made by members of field clubs and the general public to the study of natural history especially in the Victorian period.  Joseph Wright (1834-1923) was a Quaker from Cork, who made a successful career as a grocer in May Street in Belfast. Wright had become one of the world’s leading experts on foraminifera, which were often collected by dredging of the sea bed.  He was a world expert and foraminifera are a very important group of mainly carboniferous marine organism (protists) which are studied to help to understand what is/has happening in our oceans. Wright was consulted, for example, by Canadian and Australian provincial governments. In 1920 he was in poor health and in need of money for his welfare and after quite a bit of ‘negotiation’, £200 was provided by the Department of Agriculture in Ireland to purchase his collection for the National Museum resulting in disappointment to some in South Kensington and elsewhere who argued that Ireland was too unsafe for their storage.

The Museum had previously benefited from the Royal Dublin Society’s purchase of the cabinet of mineralogy of Nathaniel Gottfried Leske (“The Leskean Cabinet”) (which included many zoology type spceimens from the collection of Johann Friederich Gmelin)  for £1250, in 1792. This cabinet was originally housed by the Society at Poolbeg Street and of course eventually morphed into the collections of the National Museums of Ireland.

One of the participants enquired as to whether or not the Museum had any specimens donated from Darwin’s voyages of discovery. The answer was no, not directly. But indirectly it did. Alexander Henry Haliday (1806-70), a native of Hollywood, Co Down, who was arguably Ireland’s greatest entomologist, is particularly renowned for his work on Hymenoptera, Diptera and Thysanoptera. Charles Darwin sent him insects for identification/classification and eventually his collection was acquired by the NMI and is housed in Merrion Street.

Many were fascinated by the large number of specimens in jars ranging from reptiles to fish and especially by the range and size of jars in the tank room. The grass snake from Co Longford was not due to any inefficiency on behalf of St Patrick’s reptilian crusade!  The museum policy is to keep room temperature low to keep organic specimens in good condition and to minimise the loss of fluid (and fire risk) from containers with alcohol which is used as a preservative. The museum now has a much more developed policy as to what donations it accepts and in regard to identification and provenance. While collecting on a Victorian scale is no longer acceptable  the Museum still has a role  in providing storage for voucher specimens. The sight of 650 crates of geological specimens destined for Swords gave us some feeling for the size of the museum’s stock of rock, mineral and fossil samples and the herculean task of cataloguing, sorting and labelling prior to dispatch to Swords.

Nigel was keen to show us that the ‘Dead Zoo’ is not moribund and is moving with the times (limited resources permitting). The cetacean fridge is a flagship project. Tissues sample are obtained from beached cetaceans (whales and dolphins), are catalogued and stored by the museum for DNA analysis. Comparison of profiles then assists the study of the behaviour, of the relationships, movement etc. of these mammals.

The President Patrick Lenihan, on behalf of the members present, thanked Nigel and Alan for a most enjoyable and informative visit.


...      Dr Nigel Monaghan NHM with DNFC members ©                NHM Sunday Press 1979 ©DHardimam                Gallus sonneratii_Grey Jumngle fowl ©DHardiman                Crane ©DHardiman

                             Dr Nigel Monaghan (Keeper NHM)           1979 Sunday Press                 Grey Jungle Fowl head                        Crane head                                           


  Model of Dodo_Raphus Cucullatus ©DHardiman                Joseph Wright_1.jpg ©NHM & DHardiman                    Pelicaniformes Morus bassanus ©DHardiman

         Model of the Dodo                                           The Joseph Wright collection                                Northern Gannet 


IMG_5802  Howler monkey ©DHardiman                  Head of Mandrill (baboon) ©DHardiman                  Noctilio leporinus greater bulldog bat or fisherman bat ©DHardiman                    

             Howler Monkey head                                       Head of Mandrill                              Greater bulldog or fisherman bat                          

Pipistrellus pygmaeus ©DHardiman

Soprano Bat


Trilobite fossil ©DHardiman   Trilobite fossil ©DHardiman   Trilobite fossil ©DHardiman 

       IMG_5844b.jpg ©DHardiman

  Trilobite fossils.


...Bird collection  ©DHardiman     Wolf hybrid. ©DHardiman     NHM Specimen drawers  ©Pat Lenihan     

                                Sea bird collection                                                   Wolf hybrid                                              NHM specimen drawers 


 Grass snake_Tropidonotus natrix ©dhardiman     Egg of Long-tailed Shrike_Lanius erythronatus ©Pat Lenihan  

Grass Snake                 Eggs of Long-tailed Shrike

D Hardiman, P Lenihan & D Nash

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