In 2020, the Natural History Museum in Dublin closed for renovations. They need a new roof but first they had to figure out what to do with the two enormous whale skeletons that have hung from the old roof since the 1890s…
Below, documentary filmmaker Paul Duane introduces his new RTÉ film, The Dead Zoo- watch it now via RTE Player.
I was on a rare break from the national lockdown, holidaying in County Kerry, when I got a call from my colleague Conor O’Carroll telling me that he’d been in the Natural History Museum in Dublin where they were trying to figure out how to take two historic whale skeletons down from the ceiling, where they’d been suspended since the late nineteenth century, in order to carry out some urgent repairs on their leaking roof.
I said, ‘That’s a documentary pitch if ever I heard one.’
My initial visit to the museum, where I met senior curators Nigel Monaghan and Paolo Viscardi, only made me more certain that this had to be documented. They were preparing for the roof repairs by packing up hundreds of specimens, from huge taxidermied animals and fragile skeletons to delicate glass pieces (the Blaschkas, the transporting of which became a nerve-wracking scene in the finished film!) for storage, and they still hadn’t quite figured out how they were going to deal with the big problem – taking the whales apart and getting the individual pieces down safely.
The trouble for me was, the work had already started and I needed to start filming immediately. Film and television funders are not generally known for their rapid responses, so I was happy to get a quick response from RTÉ commissioning editors Sean Mac Giolla Phadraig and Colm O’Callaghan saying they were very keen on the idea.
The next thing to fall into place was my cinematographer, Patrick Jordan, who – like myself – had been having a very quiet time during lockdown. The prospect of filming something only up the road from Dublin 8 where we both live was very attractive to him. In addition, I promised that – unlike many documentaries which, for practicality, use many different cinematographers – he would be the lead cinematographer, his distinctive and award-winning work setting the film’s visual style.
I had never made a documentary in Ireland, my previous work has been filmed all over the world from Kolkata to Greece to Niceville, Florida, so the prospect of being able to walk to work was very welcome. As we went into the winter of 2020, Dublin wasn’t a fun place to be, but the Dead Zoo was a daily adventure, as the place transformed into a building-site and huge platforms, strong enough to hold a truck, were built in order to access the whales.
Over the winter months we watched as the Dutch taxidermist, the very cool Mikkel van Leeuwen, led the way, often using heavy machinery we were surprised to see used in such a setting to disassemble these ancient whales, the older of which died the week Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick was published.
Watching Paolo and Nigel carry out this herculean task was a privilege – I know it must have been troublesome for them being followed around by a film crew during such a difficult job – and I’m very proud of the fact that they love the finished film .
Now my ambition is to document the re-assembly of the whales as they are returned to a newly secure, future-proofed Dead Zoo – but that’s quite a distance into the future! For now, I’m just very glad to have documented this fascinating process at very close quarters.
The Dead Zoo, RTÉ One, Monday 1st August @ 6.30pm. The NMI – Natural History reopens to visitors on August 2nd, 2022.
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