Churches of Science

The Trinity Geological Museum as a Microcosm of Nineteenth Century Thought

Before the 1800s, there were few educational spaces dedicated to the natural sciences. Then, an emerging interest in Victorian Dublin in native and exotic flora and fauna sparked the building of establishments dedicated to the celebration and study of zoology and geology. The commission of the Museum Building at Trinity College Dublin, today the home of the Departments of Geology and Geography, and School of Engineering, is one of the greatest examples of this trend. Since many of the old institutions in Dublin became antiquated in the wake of industrial modernization, Irish architects rose to prominence in rebuilding the city according to both principles in modern science and the rise of Catholicism after the Act of Union in 1800. As a result, the Gothic Revival architecture characteristic of Trinity’s Museum Building reflects the competing ideas in science and art of the time across Ireland.

Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin
Museum Building showing elaborate facade decoration. Photo courtesy: Museum Building Project Gallery.

The inspiration for the Museum Building’s interior came largely from the industrial revolution, as modern methods of manufacturing and transport made popular the use of new sources of stone as building and decorative materials. The architectural firm Deane and Woodward worked out of 3 Upper Merrion Street, and shared space with Offices of the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853, which could account for the materials used for the design. The exhibition was the largest international event ever held in Ireland to this day, and was attended by Queen Victoria. Among textiles and paintings, it showcased native Irish limestones and granites, as well as Portland stone from England, which began to replace Georgian-era Calp limestone as Irish architects’ choice material.

Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin
Wide view of the main hall. Photo courtesy: Museum Building Project Gallery.

The Trinity Museum Building’s design wasn’t only a work of scientific aesthetic – it was an exercise in modern science. For example, the main hall applied Bernoulli’s principle, which says that air pressure decreases as velocity increases. Air moving quickly through ceiling ducts could help extract stagnant air from the ground floors, and the main hall acted as an air “reservoir” for the surrounding rooms through hollow bricks. The laboratory and lecture theatres’ ceilings were perforated with earthenware “trumpets,” which allowed air to escape at the cornice level. Because of the building’s novelty in both the fields of science and architecture, after it was completed, the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science said on his visit to Dublin in 1857, “It was highly gratifying that the first use to which that building has been applied should have been so closely allied to the noble interests of science and art.”

Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin
Ventilation shafts on the outside of the building. Photo courtesy: Museum Building Project Gallery.

John Ruskin, an influential art and architecture critic of the Victorian era, was another of Deane and Woodward’s important English supporters. The Museum Building epitomized Ruskin’s ideals. Ruskin published the book Stones of Venice in 1851, which Deane and Woodward read and reflected in the building’s details such as its wall plaques and windows. It was important that Ruskin spoke highly of the Trinity plans, since acclaim from the British critic brought Dublin’s University international attention. One English poet, William Allingham, wrote to another English poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in 1855, “Ruskin has written to the architect, a young man, expressing his high approval of the plans: so by and by all your cognoscenti will be rushing over the examine the stones of Dublin.”

Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin
Capital carvings featuring a bird. Photo courtesy: Museum Building Project Gallery.

In light of Ruskin’s religious background, however, the association of the Trinity Museum Building’s design with controversial artists had implications that Ruskin might not have cared for. John and James O’Shea, brothers and stonemasons from Cork, were called upon by Deane and Woodward to execute carvings of flora and fauna in the Irish marble columns and serpentine balustrades of the building. Their designs were in high demand during the Victorian era, since architects were at a loss for which figures should replace carvings of Christ and the apostles in a secular Gothic building. The O’Shea’s worked from wildflowers gathered from the College Botanic Gardens in Ballsbridge, and were given mostly free reign to carve anything they liked. Some of their noticeable carvings in Portland stone include squirrels, birds, shamrocks, and cats.

Then, a 2013 conservation project revealed a central panel referring to Darwin and the evolution of species. Their personal beliefs were demonstrated by their famous work on Dublin’s Kildare Street Club, for a project they were also included on by Deane and Woodward, in which they carved a scene of monkeys playing billiards as if they were men. The O’Shea’s similarly carved monkeys on a first floor window in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, which was horrifying to the Oxford bishop. It was popularly believed that O’Shea claimed to be “carving the Darwinian theory.”

Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin
Floral stone carvings. Photo courtesy: Museum Building Project Gallery.

Darwinism, when introduced as a theory in the nineteenth century, was met with mixed emotions. The physicist John Tyndall made a famous address in Belfast in 1874 in which he declared a state of war between the scientific and religious views of the world, arguing Christianity had no place in science. The Irish Catholic Bishops later issued a pastoral letter in which they condemned, “a materialistic approach to life among scientists and other intellectuals.” Ruskin, who evidently appreciated materialism in the form of art and geologic treasures, was a fierce opponent of Darwin. He did not approve of those O’Sheas’ carvings on the Kildare Club or the Oxford Museum that suggested evolutionary theory. Like the O’Shea brothers, Ruskin thought architecture should celebrate the environment—a desire to return to nature that seemed to be a response to the industrialization of Europe. Unlike the O’Shea brothers, however, Ruskin’s interest in nature stemmed from the “fact” that nature is “stable and unchanging,” setting it apart from mortal society. In Ruskin’s view of art, glorifying nature did not equate to glorifying scientific study, but Christianity. The historian Kristine Garrigan argues, “Ruskin’s attraction to Gothic arose from its appeal to his own profoundly religious temperament” and that “from his cognizance of the affirmation in the Gothic cathedral, not of God only, but of the humanity He created, it was a simple logical extension to his social theory.” In this sense, Ruskin’s support of Gothic Revival architecture exemplified by both the Trinity Museum Building and the Oxford Museum were that they were to be churches of science.

Museum Building, Trinity College Dublin
Decoration along the cornices. Photo courtesy: Museum Building Project Gallery.

Today, the Trinity Museum Building is a remaining manifestation of nineteenth century tensions in Dublin between modern science and traditional culture. Its architectural oxymoron is evident upon walking in and noticing white Celtic crosses on the ceiling, showing how religious thought still dominated a natural science building. The building’s Victorian Gothic style, as well as the story behind its design and promotion, assert the fact that Trinity College in the nineteenth century was an institution of secular thought, globalization and industry in the midst of a still conservative and isolationist Ireland.

By Madison Bell-Rosof, visiting undergraduate from University of Pennsylvania. 


Adelman, Juliana and Éadaoin Agnew, eds. Science and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011.

Carvings of Aesop’s Fables Uncovered in Conservation of Museum Building.” Trinity College Dublin. 22 March 2013. Accessed 19 September 2016. Web.

Jones, Jonathan. “Call of Nature: When Art Imitates Life.” The Guardian. 24 August 2011. Accessed 19 September 2016.

O’Dwyer, Frederick. The Architecture of Deane and Woodward. Cork: Cork University Press,

Wyse Jackson, Patrick N. “A Victorian Landmark Trinity College’s Museum Building.” Irish Arts Review Yearbook 11 (1995): 149-54.

Wyse Jackson, Patrick N. “The Museum Building Revealed.” On the Rocks. Accessed 19 September 2016.


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