The Curator of an Incredible Dublin Hidden Gem

Tourists may flock in their droves to the Book of Kells and the Long Room, and rightly so, but most will be oblivious to the incredible legacy collections hidden away in quieter corners of the Trinity College campus. The Discipline of Zoology lies a short stroll away from the college’s more frequented sites, its museum boasting a 250 year-old collection of over 25,000 rare and fascinating specimens from the natural world. The museum opens its doors to the public in the summer months, staffed by Zoology students. Curator Dr Martyn Linnie tends to the collection. Having inherited it in a state of some disarray and neglect, he’s worked hard to document every single item and put order on it’s vast contents.

Dr Martyn Linnie. Photo Credit: Trinity College Dublin

Restoring Order

‘When I started there was nothing really to work off. All I had was a paper record of what was in here’, he recalls, gesturing at the displays, ‘and it wasn’t very accurate. It was mostly handwritten. The exhibits were in poor condition and there was no real order to it. I found some extremely rare glass models of marine animals made by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka (19th century father and son team of glass artists) in a box in the attic where someone had obviously put them for safe-keeping. I was astonished to find out how significant and valuable they were.’

The whole building was a museum originally, but was gradually reduced in size to make way for laboratories and offices over the years;

‘The museum was the victim of that expansion and became smaller and smaller’, says Linnie, ‘We’ve worked hard to restore some order to it and everything now is at a level that makes it a bit easier to continue on. Whoever takes it over won’t be starting from scratch like I was. It would be a much more seamless transition’, he laughs.

After completing a Science Degree in DIT Kevin Street, Martyn went on to do a PhD before embarking on informal on-site training positions in the UK, including the Glasgow Natural History Museum. It was the dream gig for an enthusiastic young student developing an interest in the natural world. Martyn explains;

‘It was incredible training in a place like that. That’s when I really got interested in Zoology, although I’d always had a passion for animals. I was just 15 years old when I started in Trinity if you can imagine that? I can still remember the interview – going up the long stairs to the top floor of the old building and into an office to be interviewed by a very intimidating panel of academics! There’s been massive changes since then obviously.’

A Frilled Lizard specimen from the Museum's collection

Visions for the Future

Recognising the museum’s unique potential from early on, Martyn has been working on steadily growing visitor numbers, primarily by word of mouth, social media and unique events like their ‘Night at the Museum’ series, allowing special after-hours access to the museum, and its definitely working. Five years ago the museum welcomed just 350 people during its core summer months, while in 2017 almost 10,000 came through their doors. The museum’s intimate size means it probably can’t accommodate too many more, but Martyn has visions for its future which involves incorporating the Irish penchant for storytelling into the more traditional museum concept. He believes that concept should be constantly evolving and changing with the times;

‘The rise in visitors has made us think about what we want the museum to look like in the future. I think the potential is enormous for a slightly different type of museum. I don’t see our long-term future as simply being a place with random objects behind glass cases.  You can see that in any museum, and it’s kind of the past as far as museums go. Of course there will always be room for that traditional style of museum. and you certainly don’t want to lose the integrity of what you have either, but I see us being a more interactive, educational experience with a strong emphasis on civic engagement.’

We’re not trying to compete with the big, national museums, which are fantastic, but I see us moving away from the Victorian museum model. Our focus will be on outreach, interaction and participation while addressing the issues that affect the animal world.

‘What I imagine is something larger and more thematic, a living museum that incorporates our wonderful collection within the context of biodiversity, sustainability and global change. We would extend educational events such as our highly successful ‘Science for Schools’ programme, with people in character, special lectures and talks about the research being carried out here in Zoology, and about topics of interest such as global warming, habitat loss and extinction. I’d like people to come into an active and busy space, that they can get involved in.’

Stories from the Past

So that’s the future, but obviously the museum’s past and preserving not just the objects but the stories behind them is hugely important to Martyn and his team;

‘A lot of our team is dedicated to managing this place and keeping it going. We’ll never be in a position to collect specimens like these ever again as everything is restricted and controlled now. It’s our job to protect the collection and make sure its around for another 200 years for people to enjoy. I did my PhD on biodeterioration in museums so I know what to look out for. I don’t see evidence of any adverse effects on the collection – all the objects are stable now and Prince Tom is doing fine!’

Prince Tom is one of the museum’s most famous specimens, an elephant dissected in the Zoology building. His skeleton is an impressive sight, but more impressive still is the incredible life that he led;

‘Prince Tom who we call ‘The Royal Elephant’ was owned by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s son. He brought the elephant on his travels to Australia and New Zealand. Imagine going to countries around the world with an elephant at a time when most people had never seen one before! He would have made quite an entrance, an enormous animal decorated with beads and jewels paraded through the streets with a marching band! In those days they travelled by ship and he became part of the crew. He would lift cargo and hoist sails. He could do the work of 4 or 5 men. He was an active member of the crew and so he was treated just like them. Every day the crew were given their rations and rum. He got his allowance too but it was multiplied because of his size. He developed a taste for rum! Eventually he was brought back to London Zoo, who later donated him to Dublin Zoo, as they didn’t have an elephant of their own. In the late 1800’s Dublin Zoo was a different place. Prince Tom was free to roam around. He became a well-known character. He was docile and quiet but very intelligent. He noticed that there were huts around the zoo that sold ginger beer, candy and fruit. He also noticed that money was changing hands and that people were being given something in exchange. So Tom would approach visitors and offer his trunk. They’d give him a coin, and he’d trot up to the counter, give it to the shopkeeper and get himself a beer! This is all documented by Dublin Zoo, who have incredible records’

The museum's incredibly rare Great Auk, 1 of only 20 in the world

A Rare Specimen

The museum’s Great Auk is another specimen of note that Martyn takes great pride in, one of only 20 remaining in the world and part of the museum since 1834;

‘She’s very rare. It’s a species that should never have become extinct. Great Auks gradually ‘LOST’ their wings as an evolutionary trade-off to become more aerodynamic. They lived on the sea and could dive deeper than any bird at the time. They were mythical creatures too. People used to be buried with their bones. They mate for life and would return to land in May or June to typically lay just one egg. The male and female took turns taking care of it. They couldn’t climb up tall ledges or cliffs so they nested on rocky outcrops, which made them very vulnerable. Passing sailors began to investigate this, looking for sustenance, but what eventually caused their extinction was fashion where their much sought-after feathers were used for making hats and stuffing mattresses and pillows.

They eventually became extinct in 1844. It’s the only species I recall that we know their exact date of extinction. Museums decided they wanted them as specimens so sent people out to hunt them. Eventually there were only two left. They’re now in a museum in Iceland. Our one was found near Waterford harbour. Some fishermen found her, fed her and managed to keep her alive for 4 months’.

They are enthralling stories to be sure and there are many more to be told. Martyn plans to write a book, telling the original tales of the various specimens he’s worked with over the years;

‘When you hear a stories like these, suddenly you feel something for the animal. Prince Tom becomes more than just a big skeleton. Our Great Auk is brought to life. That’s why in the museum, rather than have a text board for you to read, we have a student come over to you and explain things. That way we’re generating thought and stimulating imagination. I see it as an extension of storytelling while also encouraging discussion. We really like storytelling here and that’s how I see us moving on from where we are at the moment. After all, there’s nothing particularly unique about seeing the skeleton of a large animal. What’s unique is its story because there’s no other like it.’

The Museum's Chimpanzee specimen

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If you’d like to know more, check out Brian Byrne’s radio documentary here…

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