I don't think everyone is necessarily in disagreement here. There are countless ways of charging for entry while also retaining an element of free access for all. In addition to a card/friend/member method, there is also the simple system that operates in a number of cities where the museum is just free at weekends, or a designated weekday, or Sunday afternoons, or whatever. I think this is the most successful way of ensuring open access while also generating revenue for most of the year. I don't for a moment buy that these are 'national collections and must be free to view'. Virtually every State site across the island charges for access to maintain upkeep. The museums, by their very unique and broad-ranging nature must maintain universal access, but still should have the option of sustaining themselves in an equitable manner.
To return to the topic in hand, as noted by publicrealm above, it is not until you step inside the Natural History Museum that the magical qualities of the institution are vividly evoked once more. You do indeed spend the entire time there smiling broadly, and continue to do so for much of the rest of the day. The combination of weird and wonderful exhibits, fusty, mellow Victorian interiors, and raucous hoards of children makes for an unforgettable experience. This is truly an institution of international significance.
Once the geological and zoological collection of the Royal Dublin Society, all of the material of the Museum was formerly housed in Leinster House itself, before a design competition was initiated in 1851 for a new museum building to formally display the thousands of gathered artefacts. This process was promptly stopped when State funding would only be forthcoming on the basis of designs being furnished by the Board of Works – presumably they knowing best in the fickle field of cutting costs. In any event it was a happy occurrance, as the architect, the Board of Works’ Surveyor of Works and Buildings, Frederick Villiers Clarendon, was more than competent as executor of designs for the new building, having successfully extended the Royal Irish Academy around the corner on Dawson Street with a reading room and vast library in the years immediately prior to works on Leinster Lawn.
His design is noble in its simplicity of form, elegance of detail, and deft handling of the practical requirements of an institution that turns its back on the outside world to shield its delicate collections within. It is a much under-rated building, a stoical, but in its own way cheerful, palazzo design that sits quietly and unobtrusively skirting the southern flank of Leinster Lawn.
Rapidly built between March 1856 and August 1857, what makes the Natural History Museum of particular interest is that all is not quite what it was intended to be. To the modern-day visitor, the Museum is a stand-alone institution with a grandiose entrance addressing Merrion Square. Its design intention was quite the opposite. What Villers Clarendon conceived was a decorous sarcophagus exclusively serving Leinster House: its positioning adjacent to Merrion Square was entirely incidental. Indeed, the building makes no acknowledgement of the existence of the square whatsoever, set back a considerable distance from the street line and devoid of a ceremonial facade. We must bear in mind that the National Gallery had yet to be built, while the site of Government Buildings was a terrace of townhouses. The Museum was little more than a garden folly discreetly tucked away on Leinster Lawn.
As seen above, as originally designed, there was no entrance to the Museum from Merrion Square. The intention was to provide access to the building from Kildare Street via Leinster House – essentially an extension to the growing complex the RDS was building for itself in and around the 18th century mansion.
Here we can see the Museum’s connection with the main house via a curved screen wall (the lecture theatre in the middle, now the DÃ¡il Chamber, would not arrive until the 1890s).
A current map view of the original connection.
As a result, the primary staircase and entrance hall is at the back of the building, while the front – now the principal entrance, installed in 1909 – goes unacknowledged by way of internal architectural treatment.
The southern exterior wall of the Museum, which can be well appreciated from inside the private laneway running alongside Government Buildings, is little more than rubble limestone with brick-lined window opes.
This is where the proposed new sliver of a glass extension was recently proposed to accommodate access provision to the upper floors, a cafÃ© and a shop.
The Portland stone carvings dressing the walls of granite ashlar are of a surprisingly high standard and charmingly themed on the natural world. The cornice and frieze is outstandingly detailed, while the linear panels above the pedimented niches show a variety of subjects.
The central panel depicts Neptune flanked by two dolphins.
The entire facade, along with that of the National Gallery opposite, was cleaned by the OPW about three years ago – quite the revelation of polychromy that went largely unnoticed by the public. Here it is back in 1994 as photographed by Jacqueline O’Brien.