The National Museum of Science and Art

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

The National Museum in Kildare Street owes its origin to the Dublin Society founded in 1731. This Society, intended for the encouragement and fostering not only of agriculture but of art and science, gradually accumulated, by gift or purchase, collections of geological, botanical and zoological specimens as well as objects of antiquarian interest, "curiosities" and works of art. In 1732 the Lords Justices were asked to grant the use of a vault under the Parliament House for the Society's collection of "Instruments." The collection was opened to the public on two days in the week; it consisted chiefly of agricultural machinery and implements, to which natural history specimens were soon added. Later the Society had a "Repository" in Hawkins Street, where its collections were exhibited.

The "Dublin Chronicle," 16th-18th September, 1788, notices the Museum as it was in that year: "The Museum of the Dublin Society in Hawkins Street is really become a most useful and entertaining repository of improvements in the several mechanical arts that tend to promote agriculture and manufactures, and for which purpose a great number of the best and most approved models of modern invention are exhibited and disposed in the different chambers for the inspection of the public; nor are architectural improvements neglected, for there is a model of the famous Corn-Market in Paris to be seen with its ground plan accurately executed. A compendious and choice library of books that treat of the useful arts makes a conspicuous part of this scientific and truly rational receptacle devised with judgment and executed with taste. Nor is the building itself of the Museum undeserving the attention of the learned and curious. Its apartments, courtyards, etc., very admirably calculated for the purpose; even at the very entrance from Hawkins Street the sight is struck and attention arrested by a serpentine staircase of a singular, bold and beautiful construction, which leads to the upper rooms."

In 1792 the mineralogical and geological collection of Professor Leske of Marburg was purchased, as well as a collection of shells, and a herbarium and botanical collections. In 1794 the Society voted £800 for the extension of the building, so as to provide for the proper arrangement and display of the collections. William Higgins was appointed Keeper of the collection in 1796; and in 1812 Sir Charles Giesecke was given charge of the Natural History collection. After the Society had acquired Leinster House in 1815 the Museum was moved there. Giesecke was, in 1826, appointed Curator of the Museum. After Higgins' death in 1819 a Parliamentary Committee, appointed to inquire into the state of the Society, reported that "the Museum is an appendage to the establishment particularly valuable in a country poor in such public repositories. Besides the Mineral Cabinet it contains a collection in Zoology, as well as in the other departments of Natural History, and an interesting collection of antiquities and works of art."

Sir Charles Giesecke died in 1833. After his death the Museum was in charge of a "Museum Committee," formed in 1830, without any regular curator until 1851, when Dr. Alexander Carte was appointed Director of the Natural History Museum. In 1853 the Art collections, which had up to this been scattered about the building, some in the custody of the Librarian, were brought together and arranged in the hall of the Art School, where they formed the nucleus of the present art collections. At the same time a "Fine Arts Committee" was appointed to take charge of them.

In 1856 the foundation stone of the Natural History Museum in Leinster Lawn was laid, and the building was opened in August, 1857.

In 1877, on the transfer of the Royal Dublin Society's Institutions to the Government, Dr. William Edward Steele, who had been Registrar of the Society for many years, was appointed Director. On his death in 1883 he was succeeded by Dr. Valentine Ball, Professor of Geology in Trinity College. Under Dr. Ball most of the art collection was moved to the Shelburne Hall, a temporary building erected for the Exhibition of 1864; the collection formerly in the Museum of Irish Industry was also added. On the completion of the building of the new Museum in 1890 the art collections of the Royal Dublin Society were transferred to it, as well as the important collection of Irish Antiquities belonging to the Royal Irish Academy.

Dr. Valentine Ball died in 1895, and was succeeded by Lt.-Colonel G. T. Plunkett, who directed the affairs of the Museum with conspicuous success, making many improvements in its organization and arrangement, until his retirement in 1907. During his Directorate the Museum was transferred to the control of the newly-formed Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction. Colonel Plunkett was succeeded by Count Plunkett, the present Director.

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