A geological time capsule in the quadrangle of NUI, Galway.

Often called 'Galway's Hidden Museum', the James Mitchell Museum is entered by the staircase in the south-east corner of the Main Quadrangle of NUI, Galway.

The museum and its collections of rocks, minerals and fossils serve as an education resource for staff and students of the College and for national and secondary school pupils. It also acts as a valuable research resource, providing a focus for local-based researchers and those visiting the west of Ireland.

Its interior is in harmony with the 19th century atmosphere of the University's main quadrangle. Many of its displays reflect its unique location adjacent to one of the most exciting areas of geology in western Europe.

The museum has survived a history marked by significant periods of neglect and inactivity. Furthermore, it is the last remaining gallery of the much larger, but now disbanded, Natural History Museum of NUI, Galway. It approaches the end of the 20 th century invigorated by recent and much needed restorations and refurbishments. 

History of the museum from 1852 to the present

The museum was established in 1852. The bulk of the rock, mineral and fossil collections were assembled by the first professor of Geology in Galway, William King D.Sc. who arrived in 1849. King settled in Galway till his death,  thirty-seven years later. Material collected in England and on the continent prior to King's arrival was later supplemented by exchanges and gifts together with purchases from dealers. Kingís original hand-written catalogues are still extant. 

With the appointment of Richard J. Anderson M.D. to the Chair of Natural History, Geology and Mineralogy in 1883 the geology and natural history collections were amalgamated to form the Natural History Museum. The collections were housed in five rooms - three for zoological specimens and two for fossils, minerals and rocks. 

Following Anderson's death in 1914 the chairs of Natural History and Geology and Mineralogy were partitioned. Professor Henry Cronshaw's short tenure (1915-1920) witnessed the disintegration of the five roomed museum in the now University College Galway. The bulk of the geological collections however, remained intact in their present location. Professor James Mitchell was appointed to the Chair of Geology and Mineralogy in 1921 and held this together with the post of College Secretary and Registrar from 1934 until his retirement in 1966. During his tenure the main gallery and collections of the surviving Geology Museum remained virtually intact. 

The museum was formally designated the James Mitchell Museum in 1977 in recognition of the considerable contributions made by him to the development of the College. However by the mid-eighties the gallery, displays and collections were in urgent need of attention. While the main gallery itself together with its Victorian oak cabinets was a magnificent example of a 'Museum of a Museum' the collections and displays had suffered acute neglect. 

Four areas were targeted for immediate action: 1) restoration of the 19th century ambience of the main gallery; 2) curation and conservation of all extant museum material; 3) entry of all available information into a computerised data base, and 4) refurbishment of displays to reflect contemporary themes in Earth history. 

Fortunately, two Irish Government agencies i.e. An Foras Aiseanna Saothair (FAS) and the National Heritage Council provided the necessary funding and human resources to help achieve significant progress in these areas over the last seven years. For example, most of the museums holdings, have been catalogued and this data base forms the basis for a new computerised catalogue and an efficient access and loan system. Cabinets have been relined and properly lit to enhance the new displays. 

Mineral and rock collections

The collection presently consists of 1725 mineral specimens and 1587 rock specimens. The displays reflect in part orthodox classification schemes that highlight mineral and rock species and their varieties from a geographical spread of global dimensions. They include a comprehensive range of mineral and rock specimens from Ireland and in particular from Galway Cityís world renowned Connemara and Burren hinterlands. They can be viewed in the special displays featuring west of Ireland geology. The display entitled the Rocks of Connemara for example, is where specimens of the world famous Connemara Marble take centre stage. The marble which has been quarried from several localities in Connemara has been used for ornamental and decorative work. Marble from the Streamstown quarry near Clifden was used to pave the chancels of the Cathedrals of Truro (1886), Peterborough (1892) and Bristol (1895), as well as the steps of Worcester Cathedral (1877). In Cambridge it was used in the pillars of the Chapel of St. John's College (1869), and the presbytery of Great St. Mary's Church. Today the marble is primarily used in the production of jewellery and ornaments. The Dave Mc Dougall Mineral Collection is focused on the wide range of minerals found in the Connemara region. Twenty eight different minerals in various combinations are featured here. This mineral collection is also testimony to a very active mineral extraction industry in Connemara during the mid to late 19th century. In 1990 the Department of Geology, UCG, received a significant collection of minerals and gemstones from Frau Ellen Bruecke (nee Eleanor Miles), Brodenkirchen, Germany. The entire collection has now been incorporated into the Museum as a permanent display. The 172 specimens which include uncut samples of diamond, ruby,
sapphire and topaz come from Europe, North and South America, Africa and India.  

Fossil collections 

The museum has over five thousand fossil specimens from many parts of the world, including some type and figured material. The core of the fossil collection is the type, figured and backup material for William Kingís Monograph of the Permian Fossils 
of England published by the Palaeontographical Society in 1850. A wide range of invertebrate fossils (corals, sponges, sea-lilies, sea-urchins, trilobites, insects, crustaceans, molluscs, brachiopods and graptolites) from the Cambrian Period to the 
present day and evidence of their modes of life are displayed. West of Ireland shelly faunas from the Silurian rocks of Kilbride and the Carboniferous Limestone to the east around Lough Mask are well represented in the collections. Brachiopods from 
Kilbride and Lough Mask are compared in display form with a collection of Recent species dredged from the seabed of Galway Bay. Reconstructions of Silurian and Carboniferous seafloors illustrate the diversity of life around Galway during these periods in environments quite different from those today. The south facing wall of the museum holds framed specimens of the large Jurassic marine reptiles Ichthyosaurus from Holzmaden, Germany and Plesiosaurus from Lyme Regis, England. These have been recently joined by some replicas of Cretaceous dinosaurs from the Isle of Wight, including the skulls of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon and a complete Hypsilophodon.

Current Status

The museum is funded by small contributions from the recurrent grant to the Department of Geology and small, periodic donations from local business and industry. Curatorial work in the museum is voluntary and is carried out by the authors who also support a full enquiry service. School and college parties are catered for by appointment. Moreover the museum has an active role within most geological events in the west of Ireland, for example, Irish Geology Day, Adult Education classes and visiting conferences and field trips.

Details of the gallery's history, its displays and collections together with the refurbishment programme have been documented in a newly-published book - An Irish Geological Time Capsule: The James Mitchell Museum, University College Galway, edited by David A.T. Harper and available from the museum. The chapters include illustrated accounts of the museum's fossil (by David Harper and Anna Jeffrey) and rock and mineral collections (by Martin Feely, Maura Madden, Jerry Lidwill, Paul Mohr and Michael Williams) together with an authoritative review of the relationship of the museum to the college and the community (by Timothy Collins). Copies of the book, at £5 including postage, are available from the authors at the address below. 

Martin Feely 
Department of Earth & Ocean Sciences, 
N.U.I., Galway.