It’s been a week since I got home from my whirlwind weekend abroad, and I’ve yet to show you this sign of American encroachment in Ireland: yes, Starbucks has landed in Dublin, setting up not one but three coffee shops there.

That girl has long grappled with the question of what constitutes “real” Ireland: when international friends arrive on your doorstep, what sort of local color do you insist on showing them? Given that I’ve been blogging Keene for over two years now and feel I’ve come nowhere near to capturing what it’s “really” like, it’s absurd to think a weekend visitor could capture even a corner of a foreign scene. But it somehow seems disingenuous to show pictures of sleeping stones and purple pharmacies without at least acknowledging that downtown Dublin has some amenities are unfortunately quite familiar to American tourists. Although it’s true that I never leave home without my American Express card, it seems silly that I can’t leave the country without corporate chains like Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Foot Locker following me.

A long weekend isn’t nearly long enough to see a city much less any corner of countryside: of my short-list of Like-to-See’s, Howth and Newgrange and Kilmainham Jail will have to wait for another trip. But on my last full day in Dublin, I took less than an hour to tour a site that only I would think is cool, really: Dublin’s Natural History Museum, known among locals as the Dead Zoo.

Photography is disallowed in the Dead Zoo, so you’ll have to rely upon my admittedly crude pencil sketches to imagine a place that is exactly what its name suggests: a large building filled with stuffed dead animals. In the style of old Victorian museums, these dead animals are either housed in antique glass cases which are crammed in rows like shelves in a library or hanging in suspension from the ceilings overhead, giving the eery impression of dead sharks and whale skeletons floating in midair while terns and guillemots huddle in glass-cased rows beneath.

On a Sunday afternoon, the Dead Zoo is packed with families: mothers, fathers, and children in tow. Standing long enough to sketch a basking shark or row of taxidermied mammal heads, I was privy to the sort of overheard conversation I wouldn’t normally hear in the usual tourist haunts. In response to a youngster’s query about the origin of these species, for instance, one dad answered honestly, then embellished with a white lie: “I don’t know…people just found them dead.” And in front of an impressively mounted dead wolf, I heard one child explain to a sibling, “They used to be real!”

I’m guessing that child was referring to the animals who people the Dead Zoo, creatures that used to be really alive and now are fakely stuffed. But he could just as well have been referring to the Dead Zoo itself, which my guidebook notes “is now practically a museum piece itself.” Natural history collections like the Dead Zoo used to be real…and then they went completely out of vogue. If you want to get children (especially media-savvy American children) interested in natural history, you do not take them to a museum cram-packed with stuffed dead animals. What fun are stuffed dead animals when you can watch “real” living and breathing ones on TV (think Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel) or when you can go to high-tech science museums with multi-media displays, interactive computer consoles, and other highlights of modern techno-wizardry?

And yet. I went to the Dead Zoo because I for one like old-fashioned natural history museums with their dusty specimens and jars of formaldyhyde. Just as a good art museum knows the value of empty silence spaces–do you need flashing lights or multi-media displays to “really” appreciate a good, old-fashioned painting?–old-fashioned natural history museums are designed with old-school science geeks in mind: those of us who like looking long and hard at rows of reindeer and shelves of serpents.

The Dead Zoo is to modern science museums what a brick-and-mortar library is to the Internet. As much as I love the flash and sizzle of high-tech exhibits at places like Boston’s Museum of Science, I typically go into sensory overload about 15 minutes after entering: the over-abundance light, color, and sound is nearly intoxicating, with everything designed and catering to a youthful (read: short) attention span. A decade or more ago, I used to love spending hours contemplating the quiet old dioramas at New York’s American Museum of Natural History; when I finally got around to reading (as an adult) J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, I was endeared by Holden Caulfield because he too spent many an imaginative hour admiring the Haida canoe that stands solemnly at one of the Museum entrances.

The last time I went to the American Museum of Natural History, though, I was saddened to discover it had been “improved” since my last visit: now there are hefty entrance fees to fund a profusion of high-tech displays and sense-bombarding interactive exhibits. Although I’ve no doubt these new-fangled displays are more popular, I wonder if they are truly more effective: is it necessary (or honest) to make science “exciting” by shaping it to the attention-spans and pop-culture-addicted tastes of modern American children?

Whereas I (ancient relic that I am) remember when it was possible to spend a quiet afternoon enjoying dim-lit dioramas while well-behaved children walked with a parent or two in tow, the last time I went to the American Museum of Natural History, there seemed to be screaming packs of children running amok everywhere. (Gary blogged his impressions of our visit: you can ask him if he remembers being overwhelmed by wailing children.) Perhaps modern museum exhibits are better suited to modern attention spans…but how much learning and absorbing can even a bright and engaged child get while on-the-fly?

I wonder if modern museums sell children (and their parents) short by assuming that exhibits need television screens, computer monitors, and other high-tech bells and whistles to catch and keep youthful interest. During my admittedly brief breeze through the Dead Zoo, two items of note caught my attention. First, nearly all of the strolling families I saw consisted of two parents: in a country where divorces are difficult to obtain and thus uncommon, dads as well as moms seemed to be out with their kids on a Sunday afternoon. And second, I didn’t see a single running or screaming child: everyone young and old alike was walking calmly, patiently looking at all those dead animals on display. Although the Dead Zoo seems to be boring by design, virtually no one seemed bored: instead, children and parents paused to pore over displays while talking at a normal conversational level. Presumably the Dead Zoo still attracts crowds of Dubliners because generations of Irish families haven’t yet been caffeinated to Starbucks levels, nor have they reached the same loudness of discourse as we notoriously Loud-Mouthed Americans have.

I don’t know if the Dead Zoo says anything about the “real” Ireland…but I think it says something about America and Americans. The Dead Zoo wouldn’t fly in a large American city: as they’d say down south, that (dead) dog don’t hunt. Here in America, we like our burgers over-processed, our coffee over-priced, our shoes over-homogenized, and our museums loud, technologically flashy, and anything but Victorian. Someday soon when every Dubliner is addicted to Grande Latte-Whatevers, the Dead Zoo will presumably perish into oblivion, its old-fashioned charm falling on deaf and dead ears. Until then, though, I enjoyed a brief opportunity to visit not only a foreign land but a strange century, a time when animals that used to be real piqued the interest of innumerable Holden Caulfields.