Somewhere in Dublin, at a top-secret(ish) location, I learn that a “road-kill freezer” is exactly what it sounds like and smells even worse. In the next few hours, I also learn that taxidermy will literally melt if it’s too hot; that every whale that washes up on Irish shores has its DNA taken and stored; that Roger Casement brought a range of nature objects to Ireland from his travels in Africa; that huge loggerhead turtles swim in Irish waters; and lampreys (eels with terrifying mouths that wouldn't look out of place in an Alien movie) are to be found in the Shannon on any given day.
Having been welcomed with a firm handshake through a cavernous doorway, I meet Alan O'Connor, who works as an assistant in the stores of The Natural History Museum of Ireland, and has agreed to give me a tour of the collection. Alan's primary role is to assist in the cataloguing of rocks and minerals, transferring data from the original handwritten ledgers that the museum relied on when it opened in 1857, to digital files. With only around 10,000 exhibits on display in the actual museum, the catalogue store is vast and the building holds some two million artefacts (which includes fossils, taxidermy, skeletons, rocks, and minerals) stored in forty-three rooms.
The road-kill freezer is in the first room we enter and is an ordinary deep-chest freezer stacked with specimens that have been sent to the museum from members of the public who have happened across something they believe may be of interest, or from professionals who know they have found something rare. The small freezer is just a fraction of how the museum continues to amass it's significant collection, while academics donating large collections or material is a major source of acquisitions. Alan tells us that the museum also occasionally used to buy items, but much less so in recent times.
The building is old and large, warren-like in its design as one room leads to another and another, each home to an array of objects, sometimes uninteresting, sometimes bewildering, that are filed into drawers, stacked in boxes, perched in cabinets, or disconcertingly sometimes staring back at you from a shelf or inside a jar.
A room that stores mostly marine specimens has a stench of methylated spirits and formaldehyde so strong it pricks my eyes, but Alan doesn’t seem to notice. I squint at jars of all sizes which sit along the walls on two sides of the room containing fish of all sizes, eels, voles, and creatures I can’t name, all of which take on a certain nightmarish quality suspended as they are in liquid.
The room that holds the large animal skeletons has a similar eerie quality as tall metal shelves hold the skulls of an Indian tiger, elephants, monkeys, and rhinos, one with the bullet hole where it was shot still visible. There is also a set of whale bones here that a family in West Cork kept as a feature in their garden for a number of years before sending them to the museum. Another strange addition is a small monkey skull with a full set of gleaming braces on its teeth. Donated by a woman who found it in the shed of her father (a dentist) after he died, she had no idea how he acquired it. There are also the bones of what was thought to be the last Guinness draught horse in this room. A note in the ledger tentatively states this but is followed with a question mark so cannot be confirmed. “You’d have to ask them at Guinness,” Alan says.
Alan talks with assured confidence and in a quiet, yet vital manner about his work and the museum as a whole. He talks of the educational value, the scientific discoveries, the sensation he gets while working there that 120 years is the blink of an eye – and all of the philosophical thought that tends to provoke.
The people who have been employed in the store down through the years inevitably become part of the wider history of the collection and what it says about Irish life. Amidst the rooms of meticulously stacked wooden crates, vast cabinets and drawers, the building is full of the ghosts of previous exhibitions and the layers of people who worked on them. An old wooden waste paper basket found in a room - which is so at odds with the others, stacked as it is with furniture, photos, bits and pieces - is thought to have belonged to Dr. Scharff, the former Gate Keeper of the museum store, and is labelled as a possible artefact for this reason. This is a place where everything has a possible value and is treated as such.
An old wooden stamp found in the same room, which was used to create a label for every single item that the museum store received, has a similar resonance - an important workaday tool to be put to use before information was written into the ledger. Today, the ledger is treated with great care, sitting on acid-free paper and only touched with special cotton gloves. Alan and his colleagues had the arduous task of deciphering the many different types of handwriting found within its pages to glean the necessary information about each item that was logged. Among the many notable entries in the large book, something that stands out – or rather is striking due to absence - is the conspicuous lack of entries between April 17th 1916 and May 10th 1916. During the time the museum received a Tiphobia Horei (that's a type of freshwater snail to you and me) on April 17th and a goldfinch on May 10th, Dublin experienced one of the most violent, turbulent, and ultimately transformative series of events in its history in the form of the Easter Rising.
Alan has also encountered some personal history in the course of his work. In the sixties, employees at the museum asked local newsagents for leftover newspapers at the end of the day which they would then use to wrap the geology specimens before they were packed away into storage. In unwrapping one such item, Alan was surprised to come face to face with a picture of his own father as a young man in a Dublin newspaper, having won a hurling match in Cork in 1962. “At the moment my dad was playing this hurling match, 21 years before I was even born, someone in The National Museum is wrapping a rock, which 50 years later, his son will open for the first time.”
When asked what he enjoys most, one of the things Alan mentions is how, “...it’s all about the blank spaces on the map I suppose, and when I’m working here, every day you’re looking at something completely new that you’ve never heard of before”.
It brings to mind something else he said when we looked at the gap of entries in the ledger during the spring of 1916, that, “Somewhere between the lines there, there’s all sorts of earth-shattering things going on”.
And it seems that in this place, that harbours all sorts of strange and interesting things, there are many stories to be found in between the lines.
Written by Sinead Fox ©2015
Photos by Adam O'Keeffe & Alan O'Connor ©2015
NEXT UP - Duffy's of the Dublin Fruit Market / Monday 1st of June, 2015