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History & Architecture of Natural History

Enjoy the unique history of the buildings that house National Museum of Ireland - Natural History.

Exterior facade of Natural History building with Parke statue in the foreground.

The Natural History building was built in 1856 to house the Royal Dublin Society’s growing collections, which had expanded continually since the late eighteenth century.

Interior of Natural History building

'Museum of a Museum'

The building is a ‘cabinet-style’ museum designed to showcase a wide-ranging and comprehensive zoological collection, and has changed little in over a century. Often described as a ‘museum of a museum’, its 10,000 exhibits provide a glimpse of the natural world that has delighted generations of visitors since the doors opened in 1857.

The building and its displays reflect many aspects of the history and development of the collections. It was originally built as an extension to Leinster House, where the Royal Dublin Society was based for much of the 19th Century.

Exterior of Natural History building in the 19th century

Design and Building

The building was designed by architect Frederick Clarendon in harmony with the National Gallery of Ireland on the other side of Leinster Lawn. The foundation stone was laid on 15 March 1856 and the building was completed in August 1857 by contractors Gilbert Cockburn & Son. It formed an annexe to Leinster House and was connected to it by a curved closed Corinthian colonnade.

Expansion in 1877

In 1877 ownership of the Museum and its collections was transferred to the state. New funding was provided for the building, and new animals were added from an expanding British empire during the great days of exploration.

New Entrance in 1909

In 1909 a new entrance was constructed at the east end of the building facing Merrion Street. This reversed the direction from which visitors approached the exhibitions and explains why some of the large exhibits still face what appears today to be the back of the building: it was too difficult to turn the whales and elephants around to face the new entrance.

Statue of Thomas Heazle Parke

A statue of Victorian surgeon and explorer, Thomas Heazle Parke, stands guard at the front of the Natural Building building. Parke acted as surgeon to an expedition led by Henry Morton Stanley in 1887.

The expedition crossed Africa on an 8,000 kilometre journey up the Congo and through the Ituri rainforest before reaching Lake Albert.

Re-Opening in 2010

In April 2010 the Museum reopened after restoration works that included the reinstatement of the grand stone staircase, open to the public for the first time since 2007. There is now a ramp to the front door and a wheelchair accessible toilet.

The Discovery Zone allows visitors to handle taxidermy and bones. The Reading Area, at first floor level, offers a more sedate experience.