Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Review: "Dry Storeroom No. 1"

I would not have expected any book titled Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum (Knopf, 2008) to send me into contortions of laughter. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so well. In this volume, retired paleontologist (aka Tribolite Man) Richard Fortey takes us on an across-the-centuries, behind-the-galleries tour of London's Natural History Museum in a way that only a true insider could do. Fortey's affection and respect for the institution where he spent his career are in evidence from the first page to the last, but those feelings are, thankfully, augmented by a healthy scientific skepticism of the "official history" and a twinkly-eyed admiration for a good bit of gossip.

The reader first accompanies Fortey on a ramble through the museum's back channels, where we visit the various scientific departments and learn something of not only their functions but also of those who have performed the functions over the decades, true characters most. Fortey is almost never at a loss for an amusing aside about one famed scientist or another, from the fellow who catalogued bits of used string (by size, of course) and kept them in file boxes around his office to the curator who nearly bowled over the Director and King George VI while running to a water fountain in order to quench a burning pan of sausages he'd been clandestinely cooking over his bunsen burner. A riff on scientists who seemed to bear uncanny resemblances to their chosen subjects of study had me in stitches, as did several of Fortey's paragraph-ending one-liners and picture captions.

Fortey displays a remarkable ease with his subjects, writing as lucidly about his trilobites as about birds, minerals, skeletons, museum administration, and literature (he compares the Museum itself to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, for example, and draws ably on other great literary figures from Poe to Dryden to T. S. Eliot).

For all its humor, Fortey's book is also a paean to the value of scientific research and museum scholarship, which he sees slipping away in these days of branding, financial strife and obsession with bells and whistles rather than the hard slog of careful research. He's quite right to sound that alarm, of course, and I hope his clarion call is heard loud and clear by those with the power to do something about it.

Every institution of a certain age has its share of past (and usually current) characters; and each one deserves a book like this to share them with the rest of us.

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