The Dead Zoo is Getting a Long-Awaited Refurbishment

The men take the large sheets of white foam, passed to them through giant jaws, and begin to pad out the inside and outside of a fin whale’s head, wrapping the whole skull.

The skeleton is 169-years-old, and 20 metres long, and they’re not sure how it got up there – the records don’t exist – but they’ve ladders and ropes, pulleys, gantries and scaffolding all around to help lower it to the ground.

“There’s a lot of sequencing and choreography for what we’re doing,” says Nigel Monaghan, the keeper of the Natural History Department at the National History Museum.

Contractors have started a long-awaited refurbishment of the museum that includes upgrades to make it more accessible, and fixing up the roof – once they can reach it, that is.

Last Thursday, they were pulling down the second of two whales from the ceiling, watched on by the mounted remains of dead rams, bison, and gazelles.

A Long Time Coming

“Since 2004, we began working on the details of what needed to be done to this building to refurbish it,” says Monaghan.

Around him, most of the oak-and-glass cases are covered in sheets to protect them from falling construction debris.

A 20-foot basking shark hangs overhead, its dark blue leathery skin also draped in protective cloth.

“I made a list of everything that was wrong and it ended up being 25 pages long,” says Monaghan.

On the list? New handrails on the second floor, wheelchair accessibility, fire exits on the second floor, a better heating system, and much more.

The museum got €15 million from the government for most of the renovations. The roof repairs will be on top of that.

“You would never design a museum like this today because people know more about the long-term preservation of objects,” he says.

In 2007, the government granted funding for the refurbishment project. But everything was put on hold with the economic crash.

The project was reignited in the Project Ireland 2040 plan, the government’s big long-term investment plan for public infrastructure.

To The Roof

Repairing the roof was the first priority, Monaghan says. That was to stop not just water leaking through, but also sunlight.

“Basically light is the enemy of museums,” Monaghan says, as he walks up marble steps to the second floor.

“If you are exposed to sunlight for 150, 160 years it doesn’t even matter if it is very low levels of sunlight. You’re getting damaged all the time,” he says.

Two obstacles blocked the roof, though. Big whaley ones.

First, they have to get both whales down, he says. “They are suspended from a steel frame in the attic.” (Or they were, rather, until their recent descent.)

That meant they were in the way of the builders who’ll do the roof conservation job, Monaghan says.

“It’s a lovely space to visit but it is a terrible space to do this kind of project,” says project manager Paulo Viscardi on the phone, last Saturday.

It’s full of fragile cases and dead animals, he says. It’s taken some planning.

To get at the two whales, builders threw up scaffolding, and bit by bit lowered the whale bones down from the ceiling to the ground.

On Thursday, three gantries stood over what was left of one whale still in the museum. They resembled miniature versions of the Harland & Wolff cranes used to build the Titanic in Belfast.

“The trouble is that they only go up to a certain height,” said Viscardi, later.

They had to build a raised floor for the gantries and just managed to fit in, Viscardi says. “It was such a tight one. Tensions was high, let’s put it that way.”

The whale parts have now been packed into crates, lifted by crane through the second-storey window – and transported to a warehouse in Swords, he said.

A Closer Look

There was no written record of how the two whales were suspended from the ceiling in the first place, Monaghan says. “They didn’t keep a log book like you would in a modern building.”

He spent hours in archives going through the history of the construction of the building.

He did find one record of how the museum acquired one of the whales.

They sent a man down to Bantry, County Cork with six pounds to buy a whale skeleton, Monaghan says. “We didn’t know that until two months ago.”

“Following an auction of the carcass, the skeleton was macerated locally, and sold to the Royal Dublin Society in 1852, then transported to Dublin,” says a report on the whales.

Not all specimens were macerated – meaning all its soft tissue removed – away from the museum.

That happened on site too, up to the 1960s, the report says, when work on a leatherback turtle “caused sufficient smells to emanate from the workshops to affect the houses of the Irish parliament next door”.

The whale was most likely not captured alive, the report says. It may have been killed by a swordfish.

Says Viscardi: “Once you actually get up to it and start tapping away, then start opening things up like all the joints, you discover all sorts of things.”

Half of the bigger whale’s skull is made of wood. The tail is plaster. From afar, it all just looks like bone, he says.

“That opens up a whole bunch of mysteries like why the tail wasn’t there and how they got a cast of these bones which are really really accurate,” he says.

It’s hard to tell when this plaster tail went up, he says.

“The last we know of it being tampered with it was when it was hung up there in 1892,” says Viscardi.

But Viscardi’s team found Rawlplugs in the whale, plastic screws.

“Which didn’t come out until 1967 so someone had clearly come in and done some later repairs on it,” he says.

Some damage must have happened later, during some decorating maybe, he says. “Maybe in the eighties, but that’s just a guess.”

A Day at the Office

Four men move around the whale’s head as in a dance, maneuvering to hoist it down to the second floor.

They’re from Maurice Ward Art Handling and Inside-Out Animals, a group from Denmark who specialise in disassembling and assembling whale skeletons.

The first of the two whales was taken down in September.

Monaghan points to one man stood on the scaffolding.

“In between the two whales that he has done for us, he’s assembled a Tyrannosaurus Rex for another museum,” he says.

It’s what he does, says Monaghan. “It’s just another day in the office.”

It will be several years until the restoration is complete, Monaghan says. “You won’t even be looking at it. It will just be beamed into our heads with a chip by the time we are finished with it.”

Viscardi says that the works are, most of all, a preservation effort.

The building looks similar to how people remember it, as kids visiting with grandparents, he says. “And those grandparents would have came in there with their grandparents when they were kids.”

The historic feel is part of the charm, says Viscardi. “We don’t want to lose that.”

[UPDATE: This article was updated on 4 January 2021 at 10.30am to specify the division of Maurice Ward Group that worked on taking the whales down.]

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Donal Corrigan: Donal Corrigan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. He covers transport, and the southside. To get in contact with him, you can email him on [email protected]

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