Six questions for a geological curator – Matthew Parkes – Dublin

What does GCG Chair Matthew Parkes get up to in his day job as geological curator for the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin? We asked him ‘six questions’ to find out more about his role:

  1. What sort of Geological collections do you look after?

As the only geological curator in the Natural History Museum in Dublin (a part of the National Museum of Ireland) I have the great pleasure to look after anything geological at all. Occasionally I will help out with zoological collections as part of a very small team, but generally my time is devoted to rocks, fossils and minerals and associated archival materials. Having originally been trained as a palaeontologist (with a leaning towards biostratigraphy rather than palaeobiology) I have now become a generalist by necessity.

  1. What is your collection usually used for and by whom? (Public display, scientific enquiries, teaching?)

Having been a user of museum collections for my own research projects over decades, one of the revelations for me as a curator was discovering how many different ways people relate to the collections. With our collections, we reckon that only around half of what we log as ‘public enquiries’ (which is really anyone interacting with us as an institution) are actually science based. So many people want to use the collections or be inspired by them for artistic reasons that we no longer really get surprised by the unexpected ways in which people relate to the museum and the collections. Our public museum is a Victorian museum, which by virtue of a lack of resources to change it, has remained untouched and so retains a character and ambience not often found elsewhere. People love the ‘Dead Zoo’ as it is known in Dublin, which has been described as a ‘museum of a museum’. Requests to film in it are frequent, but what most people don’t really appreciate is that the building is essentially only a zoological gallery. Geology was put into storage in hundreds of wooden crates in 1962, so the Government could build a bar and restaurant for the Dail (Parliament) in place of the Fossil Hall!

Outreach work includes working with film crews for National Geographic landscape programmes.
Matthew Parkes reassembling a Megalosaurus replica in storage after its annual outing.
  1. What is the most famous item in your collection and why?

It’s difficult to answer this when so few people actually know much about our collection at all. Aside from the Giant Irish Deer (see next question) possibly the large pliosaur Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni is a contender. In the centre of the Fossil Marine Reptile Gallery in the Natural History Museum in London is a replica of this spectacular beast, but we have the original. The preparation and conservation of the skull a few years ago allowed Adam Smith to resolve many taxonomic relationships of the pliosaurs. Some day we hope to get the full skeleton prepared, conserved and accessible for museum visitors to see.

The spectacular original fossil skull of Rhomaleosaurus cramptoni

Another candidate might be the Brasky Mass of the Limerick Meteorite. This 27kg chondrite meteorite fell in 1813, but the fate of another large mass is still unclear, but the biggest is certainly safe in our care, and of great interest when it does get an outing. Another space rock that routinely gets asked for is our Apollo 17 ‘Goodwill’ Moon Rock presented to the Irish State by the USA.

  1. What is the most viewed part of your collection and why?

Probably the Giant Irish Deer are our best known and iconic collection. We have researchers visit from all over the world to study the skeletons of deer which carried the largest ever known antlers (up to 4m across). Whilst these magnificent deer roamed across much of the northern hemisphere at the end of the Ice Age, preservation opportunities in Ireland mean that we have probably the best collection of them in the world. We have over 100 individuals from one locality alone, at Ballybetagh Bog near Dublin. Finds of new material often come to us from excavations for roads, drainage and bogs. However, we almost never get any contextual information. Someday we hope to have a find with the opportunity to conduct a scientific excavation and better understand their preservation and context, for the reason for their disappearance is still unknown.

Some of the Giant Irish Deer collection in Natural History Museum storage
  1. What is your favorite story about your collection that illustrates its importance and use? (more than one story is allowed if you want!)

Just last autumn I had the privilege to go to the Munich Mineral Show with a small exhibition of specimens from our Leske Collection. Our founding collection of 7331 geological specimens was purchased from the widow of Nathanael Leske, a famous mineralogist in Marburg, Germany under Abraham Werner. The Dublin Society purchased this in 1792 for the enormous sum of £1752, primarily to help stimulate the members (many of whom were the wealthy landowning class) to search for minerals and economic resources on their lands. After being unavailable for so long, a recent Inventory Documentation Project has meant that almost all the crates of specimens have now been opened and catalogued and in soon I will be able to identify what identifiably survives from the original acquisition. Many of these specimens are from localities in Germany, Poland, Hungary and other countries, that are no longer accessible and there is interest amongst German museums and collectors in this important historical collection.

The former Documentation Team colleagues studiously ignore the elephant in the room (L to R) Sara Dickson, Alan O’Connor, Stephen Callaghan, Joanne O’Meadhra)

An equally important palaeontological collection is the Griffith Collection. Sir Richard Griffith was a major figure who led many public works such as mapping the bogs of Ireland, deciding which routes the railways took and the Valuation Survey which established property values for taxation purposes. In the course of these works he had Patrick Ganly and others working unofficially on the geology of the country, allowing him to publish the first geological map of Ireland in 1839. Hundreds of fossils collected during this survey work were described in 1844 and 1846 by Frederick M’Coy. Hundreds of new species were established and described and continue to be significant to this day as the critical type specimens that must be consulted by anyone revising the fossil species or describing new ones.

  1. If you had unlimited funds, how would you develop your collection?

Daydreaming about winning the Euromillions lottery I generally have enough spare cash to include plans for an Earth Science Gallery to actually exhibit the best of the geological collections and allow the public to see all the treasures that I look after. There is now a possibility that the support of the Geological Survey of Ireland may see a new geological exhibition developed in partnership with the National Museum but the very absence of any exhibition means that most people with a potential role to play just do not have the imagination to see what shape such a space could be and just how popular it could be with visitors.

In the absence of funds, my priorities for developing the collection have two strands. One is the rescue of many collections at risk in third level institutions, which we have been doing a lot recently, whilst the other strand is to create a Rock Garden outdoors. This will comprise many, very large boulders of interesting rocks from around Ireland, each with a story to tell.

Matthew in geological pursuits with the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland

Follow the National Museum of Ireland: @NMIreland

Find out more about the Natural History Museum: @DublinDeadZoo

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