Thursday, January 30, 2014

Natural History Museum

On a recent (and rainy) trip to city centre, we made a stop to a museum we had kept hearing about but hadn't had time to stop in.  The National Museum of Ireland Natural History Museum is housed in the suite of buildings around Leinster House- home of the modern Irish Parliament.  The building of the museum itself was constructed in 1856 to display the collection of the Royal Dublin Society, then headquartered in nearby Leinster House.  The museum, being part of the fantastic (and free!) National Museum of Ireland is well-run, clean, and informative.

Just inside the front door are the real stars of the museum.  The full skeletal remains of three Giant Irish Deer stand regally and imposingly facing the entrance hallway.  These animals lived on this island and other parts of Northern Europe until about 10,000 years ago.  The antlers of these huge mammals have roughly the same size and shape of those of a full-grown bull moose (more on him later.)  What an animal this must have been to behold in prehistoric Europe.

Giant Irish Deer at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Giant Irish Deer
Sara knows I love seeing seals in the wild here.  I totally geek out whenever we are on a coast and I get even a hint of these cute sea mammals.  She called me away from staring at the predatory bird display to say, "Hey Buddy!" to this spotted little guy.

A stuffed seal on display at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Stuffed Seal
Yes, the predatory birds exhibit waited for me.  After all, the animals in here have been stuffed for decades.  They'd still be there.  The birds exhibit (and many others from the museum) don't have a photo in this post- because we aren't uninhibited photo-machine-gunners.  A comprehensive museum like this with thousands of displays of all sizes would take hours or days to catalogue thoroughly.  Further, if we were that determined to collect photos, would we actually get to see any of the exhibits?  I mean, actually see them, not look at them through the camera display to do a double check of the zoom and focus.  Case in point-  I was looking at a large sea eagle (there's that raptor display again...) carefully.  I was leaning in to examine the length of the talons, the size of the wingspan, the shine in the eyes, and the variations in feather color.  When I stepped to the side, two younger museum-goers walked up to the display while having a conversation.  Each had a smartphone in hand.  Without really looking at the bird, both pointed the smartphones at the display and snapped a shot- without interrupting the (unrelated) conversation.  They checked the photo for focus (on the phone screen) and moved on, chatting all the while.

I wasn't disturbed or annoyed, mind you.  They weren't loud or obnoxious in their conversation, and they waited for me to step aside before moving in to take their pictures.  I just found myself wondering if they had actually appreciated the bird they had thought enough of to capture in a photo.  Just not my kind of museum-going.

One of my goals while living here is to see a live wild hedgehog.  I know I'm not in a very good place to see them, as I've heard they usually live outside the bigger cities and are mostly nocturnal.  This day I was happy just to see one of these native mammals that so fascinate me- even being from the land of raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

A stuffed hedgehog at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
The ground floor of the museum is mostly dedicated to animals native to Ireland- both living and extinct.  From birds and mammals we continued to some of Cory's favorites- the fish.  Most of the fish were stuffed and mounted, but some (of extinct or threatened species) were models not created from a real organism.  I must register here my strong agreement with this responsible choice.  Taxidermy as a craft is mostly model-building anyway.  A well-constructed model of these organisms (as these were) gives the viewer a more-than-satisfactory idea of their size, shape, color, and characteristics.

Cory Checkin' out the Fish at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Ireland
Cory Checkin' out the Fish
Not pictured for reasons stated above, the ground floor continues with displays of other aquatic and marine life, even (admirably) the not-as-beautiful-but-just-as-important-to-an-ecosystem organisms like worms, mollusks, shellfish, and other invertebrates.  The displays of preserved insects and spiders were covered with liftable leather covers- presumably to prevent light damage.

Thinking of responsible stewardship of wild animal populations... The next floor(s) house animals of the world beyond Ireland.  Just inside the entrance, a stuffed giant panda from nearly 100 years ago welcomes visitors.  Pandas, critically threatened and closely guarded by the Chinese government today, were apparently not so in the early twentieth century.  The specimen here in the museum was collected by missionaries to China and was one of the first stuffed pandas to reach museums in the western world.

Further down the floor, we are reminded that some threatened animal populations are still being poached and irresponsibly managed.  The rhinoceros in the photo below has had its horn removed to prevent its theft for sale on the black market.  Rhinos are still commonly poached and horns cut off for sale for their mythical medicinal properties.  Researches have found absolutely no evidence of these black magic remedies improving any medical condition.  These horns are, chemically speaking, one large, thick hair or fingernail.  Wanna grind up some finger and toenails into your healing potion?  Write me and I'll send you some of my own clippings.

In the meantime, a prosthetic replacement horn is being constructed for the rhino specimen in the museum.  Good on you, museum curator.  Bad on you, rhino poachers- and you, too, museum rhino horn thieves!

Rhino Waiting for a Nose Job at the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Rhino Waiting for a Nose Job
Near the temporarily hornless rhino is an elephant skeleton, with its record-setting tusk on display below.  Apparently elephant tusk theft isn't as much a concern as rhino horn smuggling.  Good thing, too- it was an impressive specimen and would have been a shame to miss.

A large elephant tusk at the Natural History Museum in Dublin, Ireland
One of the largest elephant tusks ever collected
Above the busy displays on the upper floor, I almost missed the huge whale skeletons as my eyes were darting from strange mammal to strange mammal in the central floor exhibits.  Humpback and fin whale skeletons hang over the floor case with the smaller members of the cetacean family- dolphins and porpoises.  Upon closer inspection, one can see the small vestigial bones of what were once the back legs of these marine mammals evolved from land mammals going back to the sea.  

Whale Skeletons hanging in the Natural History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Whale Skeletons
The specimens on this floor, as stated above, are collected from around the world.  Most of them are grouped by their families- Kangaroos and wallabies, anteaters, sloths, and others are shown with their relatives- sometimes both living and extinct.  I have to admit, though, among all those strange, new, and exotic animals, I had little nostalgic jolts every time I saw some of my favorite North American classics like raccoons and our buddy, bearded bull moose.

A moose on display at the National History Museum Dublin, Ireland
Don't mess with Texas Maine.
The animal displays were engaging and entertaining, of course, but I was brought many more big smiles watching some of the living human specimens in the museum- the kids.  Many young families were enjoying a Saturday out at the museum with the kids, and the kids could simply not get enough.  Mothers and fathers were often pulled in two or three different directions by their children desperate to get a closer look at that "Bear!" "Antelope!" "Elephant!" "...What is that!?"  I could imagine, and remember myself, some of that wonder and total euphoria felt by young kids around so many different animals.  They, the children are the real target audience of collections like this.  After all, they- the children- will be in charge of this world someday.  If we can educate them at a young age of the beauty, importance, and fragility of our natural systems- maybe the world won't have to worry about rhino poaching, overfishing, and habitat destruction.  Maybe I'm too optimistic...

For a more comprehensive look at the museum and its displays, get off this blog and go yourself!  It's convenient, it's free, and it's great.

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