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Natural Science

Natural Rocks collection at Ulster Museum

The Ulster Museum’s natural science collections have been built up since the late 1700’s. On a visit to the museum, you will see marine life, insects, plants and animal specimens, birds and mammals, found around Northern Ireland, and from all over the world. See Ireland's only dinosaur bones.  

These specimens represent life at a moment in time, whether recent (the last few 100 years), or deep history (geological time), and are of great value to science today. 

Permanent galleries

A journey through time

Experience a unique journey through time, in eleven episodes, from the very formation of our planet more than 4,500 million years ago to the start of the Ice Age.

Touch a piece of the very oldest rock in Ireland, almost 1,800 million years old, from the remote island of Inishtrahull. Run your fingers across rippled sandstone from Scrabo Hill, formed on a river bed 230 million years ago. See the only two dinosaur bones ever found in Ireland, and some of the fossil ‘sea dragons’ that lived alongside them, all from the Jurassic rocks of the Antrim coast. Ponder on the peculiar Paramoudra, a giant hollow flint, and the petrified wood from Lough Neagh.

Changing times, changing places

Discover how the climate and environment – and even our location on the globe – has changed over millions of years. See some of the evidence for this, in the rocks that form our island’s landscape and in the fossils that they contain. There are spectacular examples throughout the gallery.

Explore The Elements

The Elements exploration begins with a stunning 3D display of the Periodic Table, beloved by scientists and chemists alike. 90 elements occur naturally on Earth, with almost 30 more created in nuclear reactors and laboratories, yet you will be surprised how rare most of them are. Just six familiar elements - carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus - make up 99% of the atoms in our bodies and only three elements – oxygen, silicon and aluminium – make up more than 85% of the Earth’s crust!

So what use are all of those other obscure elements? It turns out that even the rarest of them are far more useful than might think. Our modern lifestyle relies on many elements that most people have never heard of. Gallium and terbium are used in electric lights. Tantalum - the rarest non-radioactive element in the Universe – is essential for creating slim mobile phones. Without indium there simply would be no touch screens. And computer hard drives contain a whole smorgasbord of elements, from the familiar copper to the downright exotic hafnium.

What may surprise visitors is how many of these items on display link directly to our everyday lives - and how many of the different elements, sometimes strange and unfamiliar, we rely on. There also are examples of familiar elements that have been put to bizarre uses, such as lead, mercury and arsenic used in cosmetics or medicines, and exotic elements like titanium, niobium and zirconium turned into beautiful jewellery. Still other objects are just plain weird. A sparkplug tipped with deadly radioactive polonium, and a toy science kit containing radioactive elements and a geiger counter.

Of course the exhibition is not just for scientists. Don't be put off by the unfamiliar element names, as you need know nothing about science. The gallery is divided into familiar themes, such as Life and Death, Colour and Light, Progress and Technology, in which everyone will find a rich and fascinating variety of objects - artistic, historical, scientific, and even weird - accompanied by clear and simple explanations. Alongside them are stories – some sad, some tragic, others funny or surprising – that will dispel any notion that chemistry is irrelevant or dull.

Curator of the Elements exhibition, Dr Mike Simms has been delighted by the public’s response to the exhibition since it opened in March 2014:

"The exhibition was inspired by a book by Theodore Gray, in which the relevance of elements to all of us is beautifully described in words and pictures. My hope was that visitors young and old would be similarly inspired by this exhibition, the first of its kind anywhere in the UK, and visitor feedback show that many who come to the exhibition now see science in a new light.”

The Elements exhibition is part of the wider STEM programme and will be accompanied by a series of events, both for schools and for other visitors within the Ulster Museum. These will include STEM workshops, science shows, lectures and family events. Check the Ulster Museum website regularly to keep up-to-date with these events.

Fallen from Space

Meteorites are fragments of metal or rock that fall to Earth from Space. Most meteorites are pieces of asteroids that formed early in the Solar System’s history and were then shattered in collisions. Just a few meteorites are pieces of rock from the Moon or Mars.

The Origins gallery displays some of the different meteorite types that have been found on Earth, and pieces from some that have fallen in Northern Ireland.

Beauty and science

Run your hands over the cold sculptural texture of a huge iron meteorite. See some of the tiny stones that fell from the sky when the giant Chelyabinsk meteorite exploded over Russia in 2013. Marvel at the beauty revealed in a thin slice of ‘stony iron’ pallasite meteorite.

The study of meteorites tells us how, and when, the Solar System formed. Some meteorites have remained unchanged almost from the very beginning of the Solar System 4,567 million years ago. They are the very oldest objects in the museum!

Raw ingredients of Earth and life

Meteorites are made of the same materials from which our own planet and everything on it were formed (including you!). The water and heat on Earth has created many more minerals than are found in meteorites, and has allowed life to develop.

The Earth’s Treasures and Living World galleries nearby display examples of many minerals and living things. These have developed on our planet from the basic raw materials found in meteorites.

Beautiful minerals

In Earth’s Treasures you can see beautiful and exotic minerals from across the UK, Ireland, and beyond. Some of the minerals are so rare that they have been found in only a few places in the world. 

About 30 common minerals make up most of the Earth’s rocks. Scientists have identified more than 3,000 other minerals but most are very rare.

Some of the specimens in Earth’s Treasures are common minerals that have formed unusually large or perfect crystals. Others have an uncommon colour or form. Many others are rare minerals that form only in unusual circumstances.


Hard-wearing and colourful minerals are valued as gemstones. In Earth’s Treasures you can discover what these gem minerals look like in their natural state, alongside the cut gemstones.

Beautiful glow

Some minerals look dull under ordinary light, but under ultraviolet light they glow with brilliant greens, reds and yellows. The display of fluorescent minerals in Earth’s Treasures is the largest in any UK museum.

*low light in this gallery.

Strange and familiar

Millions of different species of life inhabit our planet, or have done in the past. You can get a flavour of this diversity in the Living World gallery, where modern examples mingle with spectacular fossils.

Some creatures will be familiar, such as the Emperor Penguin and Giant Clam. Many others are not, such as the shelled brachiopods and the bryozoan ‘moss animals’.

Barely changed

Some forms of life have barely changed through time. Compare living algal stromatolites in Australia with slabs of fossil stromatolites from 200 milion years ago and even 2 billion years ago – both on the wall at the start of the gallery.

Going, going, gone

Some creatures face extinction, such as the giant Sturgeon. Others became extinct within living memory; the Passenger Pigeon of North America and the Australian Thylacine. Still others are long gone and found only as fossils; the coiled shells of ammonites and the slater-like trilobites.

Beautiful creatures

Some of the strangest animals are things of great beauty, such as flower-like fossil crinoids that lived dangling from floating driftwood. Others are a bit ugly, like the huge Coelacanth fish thought to have been long extinct but rediscovered off the east African coast in 1938.

This gallery consists of a series of scenes taking the visitor on a journey into the sea around Ireland. The display uses models made by the model-maker, Sam Anderson, for the original gallery which opened in the 1980s.

At the entrance is a screen showing video shot around the Northern Ireland coast for a BBC programme, “Waterworld”. It includes underwater scenes from Rathlin Island and basking sharks from Donegal.

The first case represents a typical rocky shore, with limpets and sea anemones. The next scene takes the viewer beneath the waves with a case illustrating a rocky reef, based on St. John's Point in Donegal.

The fish in this exhibit include ballan wrasse grazing on the rocks and spur dogfish chasing a shoal of sand eels.

The third case covers the open sea, featuring a shoal of herring, a thresher shark and a leatherback turtle. The turtle model is based accurately on an animal which was accidentally caught by a fishing boat in Donegal.

The final case shows the deep sea and highlights a model of a giant squid. A video playing at the end of the gallery illustrates ‘black smokers’, volcanic vents on the mid-Atlantic ridge.

*low light in this gallery.

Creatures past and present

With a mix of ancient fossils and modern creatures, there is something to amaze and inform every visitor. From an elephant skull and whale backbone, to giant armadillos and a fearsome fossil fish 4 metres long, marvel at some of these giants of past and present.

Skeletons and skulls

Discover the amazing similarities between your skeleton and that of a monkey or a mouse. Or even a bat! And how a skull says so much about what you eat.

Evolution explained

Evolution explains how, and why, all life today shares so many similarities, such as the arrangement of bones in mice and men. It makes sense too of the sequence of fossils found in different layers of rock, and of seemingly strange fossils found in ancient rocks.

Fabulous fossils

From fossil footprints to bitten bones, ancient seashells to petrified plants, discover how living things leave a record in the rocks. Marvel at the amazing ‘Snapshot of an ancient sea floor’, where painstaking excavation of the rock has uncovered hundreds of exquisite ammonite shells banked up against several fossil tree branches.

What on Earth?

Try our ‘What on Earth?’ object quiz. Can you identify the weird and wonderful objects from our natural sciences collection?