Since Covid-19 hit the scene, time has not seemed to behave normally, with a Groundhog Dayesque sense of repetition that has eroded our patience and put our mental health to the test. For many people working with collections it has been a very difficult time, with projects being put on hold, contracts not being renewed, furlough and redeployment making normal work impossible and even the improvements seen in facilitation of working from home offering the thinnest and most tarnished of silver linings.
At the Dead Zoo in Dublin the pandemic has thrown up different challenges. With a leaking roof threatening the national collections, a project to safeguard them by undertaking a roof refurbishment was considered a priority and categorised as essential work. The first stage of this project was to remove two whales suspended from supports within the roofspace, which in turn required a substantial amount of preparation, given the crowded Victorian gallery space.
In an ideal world we would have been able to empty the building of specimens and cases, but as we’re all well aware, the world is seldom ideal. Instead, large taxidermy and skeletal mounts had to be shunted around to make way for access and scaffolding, while historic cases full of objects and the largest free-standing specimens had to be boxed in to protect against dust and falling debris from the work.
With protections in place and access provided, a specialist natural history company from the Netherlands called Inside Out Animals were able to dismantle the smaller of the two whales – a subadult Humpack. This phase was relatively straightforward considering the specimen was suspended on chains that ran through the large Fin Whale specimen above. The main difficulty was that Covid-19 restrictions on international movement meant that the Dutch team required special permission to be in Ireland and they could only spend time in their rented accommodation or in the Museum. As a result, all of their shopping had to be done by members of Museum staff during their stay.
Once the Humpback was out of the way, a huge scaffolding platform was installed, with props on the Ground Floor to ensure the building could take the increased floor loading. This was a serious consideration in the 1856 building, which relies on the original timber flitch beams to support the First Floor and everything on it.
Once the scaffolding was in place, the Inside Out Animals team returned to take down the Fin Whale. This was a much bigger undertaking than the Humpback, requiring countless hours of planning and resulting in numerous sleepless nights. I won’t go into detail here, but needless to say that we were delighted when we had the specimen dismantled and removed from the building through a hole made by removing a window.
Of course, the whales were just two specimens and we had teams of people from Maurice Ward Art Handling and William Tracey & Sons to assist with moving somewhere in the region of 20,000 objects and historic cases from the First Floor and Balcony spaces. All of this was to get the building ready for the first phase of roof work – the installation of a crash deck beneath the glass ceiling, which is due to begin in the next few weeks.
There will be plenty more to talk about from this project, with lots of detail to share, but that will have to wait for another day. If you want to see how things have been progressing, check out the #DeadZooDiary on Twitter.