The dead zoo: a visit to the Natural History Museum of Dublin

Animal specimens on the first floor of the dead zoo, the Natural history Museum of Dublin

‘Dead Zoo’ is the chilling expression Dubliners use when referring to one of the Dublin’s most peculiar children attractions: the Natural History Museum of Dublin.

Located in Dublin City centre,  the museum was built in 1856 and it’s an ode to taxidermy: it stretches over two floors of one of Dublin’s beautiful historical buildings and its imposing rooms are full of specimens of animals from all over the world.

It is a very unusual place and, like its nickname, it seems designed to awaken in visitors conflicting feelings: it is disturbing but  somehow intriguing and if you are looking for fun things to do in Dublin with kids it is a must see.

Children love it!

If you are looking for family-friendly museums in Dublin, you may also like my post about Dublinia, the museum devoted to the history of Dublin city and its Norman and Viking past

The Natural History Museum of Dublin with kids: practical info

  • Location: Merrion Square, Dublin city centre, beside the Government Buildings
  • Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm; Sunday 2pm- 5pm.  Closed Mondays (including Bank Holidays), Christmas Day and Good Friday
  • Admission: free
  • Suitable for: all ages, but very young kids might find it disturbing due to the size of some of the specimens

We have been to the Dublin Natural History Museum a couple of times.

Our very first family trip there happened when my son was a little over two and our first impression of the museum wasn’t spectacular.

My son felt a little bit overwhelmed by the size of some of the animals and  the old style displays, with their lack of interactivity, made the place hard to grasp for a little one and a little bit stuffy for adults.

We were therefore really surprised when this year my son, now 5 and who I believed had no memory of the place, passing in front of the museum’s building, screamed: ‘Mamma, let’s go see the woolly mammoths again!’

Make no mistake: the Dublin’s Natural History museum has no woolly mammoths (though they did once roam the Irish landscape)  but indeed hosts many other interesting specimens including the famed Irish Elk or giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus).  So, with expectations set, we walked in.

Ground floor

The first impression, when you enter the wide room, is to have stepped back in time to the Victorian era.

Glass cabinets with specimens fill the large space and, from their glass cages, animals of all sizes look at you, their still eyes piercing and inquisitive.

The Natural History Museum of Dublin is often referred to as a museum of a museum and this first room shows how appropriate the definition is: if you were to describe the typical museum we knew when we were kids, it would look exactly like this.

This floor is dedicated to animals native of Ireland and has families of foxes, badgers and marine birds that have found in the museum their final resting place.

The displays are organised to recreate bucolic scenes of their wild habitat and  the kids thought they were the most charming and cute little scenes they ever saw.

Unphased by the stillness of the animals and the undeniable truth that it is something dead you are looking at, my kids ran from a cabinet to the other with screams of excitement and laughter. ‘Look, mamma, a silly goose!’.

 It reminded me of our first visit at the ‘living’ Dublin zoo: we had made a big deal about elephants being here while the kids thought the best animals of all were the chickens in the petting farm area. It’s typical:  you just never know what your kids will be into.

The huge basking shark, the second larger living species of fish in existence hangs from the ceiling of the ground floor of the Natural History Museum of Dublin
The huge basking shark, the second larger living species of fish in existence hangs from the ceiling of the ground floor of the Natural History Museum of Dublin

As well as inhabitants of the Irish countryside, the ground floor hosts creatures from the sea.

They come in all sizes and truly show how weird and wonderful the animal kingdom is.

The biggest creature here  is the long shark that now hangs from the ceiling and perilously swings under the footsteps of the first-floor visitors. The smallest is probably one of the many seahorses kept in glass jars: both are awe-inspiring.

If you or your kids like bugs, this room also hosts displays that will make any entomologist happy.

Bugs and insects of all kinds are pinned to endless cases, legs and wings in full display. I am trying really hard not to pass on to my kids my phobia for butterflies but this is a part of the exhibition I knew would just defeat me so I left them to it and moved on.

First floor

The upper level of the museum also contains animals treated with taxidermy but despite this similarity in approach, it  has a very different feel.

First of all, the room has two levels (the upper gallery is, unfortunately, not accessible ) so you are surrounded on all sided by animals staring at you.

Secondly, while the ground floor hosts mainly small, local animals, the first-floor goes for the exotic and the big. Polar bears, lions, elephants, deer even gorillas.

The first floor of the national Museum of Ireland: these are some of the many skeletons preserved
The first floor of the national Museum of Ireland: these are some of the many skeletons preserved

Nothing is too big or too exotic to find a palce here and the effect on kids and adults in incredible: there is something quite powerful about being face to face with a polar bear, even if the one in question looks like a less cuddly brother of your cildren’s favourite toy!

The kids loved this part of the museum and slowly seemed to get interested in the nature of what they were seeing.

The question ‘are they dead’ was finally asked but our straightforward answer (yes) didn’t seem to bother them: they ran from one case to the other, posed near the small skeletons of bats and tried to pick a favourite. Trauma was, on this occasion, avoided.

My daughter getting friendly with the stuffed bats at the Natural History Museum of Dublin
My daughter getting friendly with the stuffed bats at the Natural History Museum of Dublin
Specimen of the big and furry Himalayan goat
I got very fond of the Himalayan goat!

Final considerations

The Dublin Natural History Museum is worth visiting and it’s one of the many fun things to do in Dublin with kids.

It is best suited for kids aged 3 or more, I believe, and a perfect hideout on a rainy day.

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13 thoughts on “The dead zoo: a visit to the Natural History Museum of Dublin

  1. Marianne says:

    My kids would love this too – the ‘stuffed animals’ were their favourite part of the Natural History Museum in London too. Hilarious that it’s known as the ‘Dead Zoo’!

    • Marta says:

      It’s an odd nickname, isn’t it? I hated it when I first learned about it but now I can see how appropriate it is! I haven’t brought the kids to London yet but the Natural History Museum there was a favourite of mine as a kid (we had a memorable holiday in London) and I can’t wait to show it to my children.

  2. Heather says:

    Dead zoo is the perfect weird name for it. The museum reminds me so much of the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland.

  3. Katja says:

    I like this! I know my kids would love it, and what’s not to love?! Animals (albeit dead ones), enormous whale skeletons and creepy-looking bats! Sounds like a great place to entertain the children.

  4. Malibu Mama Loves says:

    This is great! I had never heard of it before but I will be putting it on my list for when we visit!! Thank you for sharing, keep up the amazing work! Malibu Mama Loves Xx

  5. Kevin Wagar says:

    Such a cool place full of history and excitement! My kids love checking out all the animals of now and times past when we visit museums so this would be a perfect destination for us!

  6. Amy says:

    We have a museum like this, but I’ve never thought of it as a dead zoo, quite an interesting take! This one is seems quite impressive and diverse in what they offer, I’m sure most kids would be ecstatic to see it!

  7. Claire says:

    Haha, I’ve never heard of this museum before! I went to a natural history museum in Guatemala and it could be quite accurately described as a ‘dead museum’ – full of really scary taxidermies. It sounds interesting though (I’m trying to picture wooly mammoths roaming Ireland….)

  8. Annika says:

    While the name is a bit creepy, I prefer that to any real zoo. I’d rather see the bones of animals than animals alive and caged!

  9. shobha george says:

    I know natural history museums have their place but I’ve never been a fan of taxidermy. just a bit creepy with the glass eyes and all. My kids who get freaked out anything though love these type of museums. go figure!

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