I love museums. When I went to Europe after I graduated university, one of the top three things I was looking forward to was getting to visit some of the most famous museums in the world. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as well as I hoped they would. Sometimes a museum would be closed on the day I wanted to visit; sometimes schedules for other activities would clash with my own plans and I would have to give way; and on other times I was simply too tired (or sick) to be able to enjoy the visit. In the end, I didn’t get to visit all the museums I wanted to go to, and I still feel a minor pang of regret over that.
One of the museums I had really wanted to go to was the Natural History Museum in London. When the trip was still in its planning stages, I’d allotted one day for the British Museum and the Natural History Museum – sensible, in my opinion, because they were so large. Sadly I didn’t get to visit either, because by that point in the trip I was just too tired to really enjoy the idea of exploring either museum.
It’s because of this lost opportunity that I decided to pick up Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. I might not have gotten the chance to see the Museum myself, but here was a book that would tell me all about it; even better, it would tell me about what went on behind the scenes, in the places where visitors are not allowed to go.
Dry Store Room No. 1 is in many ways what it says on the tin: a behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum, in the company of Richard Fortey, who worked there as the resident “trilobite man”. He describes the Museum (both literally and figuratively) thusly:
It was a place like Mervyn Peake’s rambling palace of Gormenghast, labyrinthine and almost endless, where some forgotten specialist might be secreted in a room so hard to find that his very existence might be called into question. I felt that somebody might go quietly mad in a distant compartment and never be called to account. I was to discover that this was no less than the truth.
Fortunately, the reader need not navigate the labyrinth on their own. Through the course of nine chapters, Fortey shows the reader around through the many hallways, rooms, cubbyholes, and unexpected hidden spaces that are not open to the visiting public, telling stories along the way. Many of those stories are, in fact, institutional history: part of the Museum’s own story through time. However, there are also plenty of stories that might be too scurrilous to count as part of something as venerable as “institutional history”: the rumours, the gossip, the “juicy bits” that so often get tastefully elided from more official accounts – or, if included, are told in a very dry, unentertaining manner. Take, for example, the tale he tells about Carl Linnaeus’ herbarium sheets, and why they are in England, and not in Linnaeus’ native Sweden:
The collection fetched up in London because Sir James Edward Smith bought it from Linnaeus widow for the sum of £1,050 in 1783. He certainly got a bargain, regardless of those tedious calculations that tell you much that money would be worth today; for he had purchased something timeless. Because of inefficiency or indecision the Swedish government did not make up its mind quickly enough to purchase the collection of its most famous scientific son and Smith stepped in. The Swedes realised their mistake and dispatched a man ‘o war to try and overtake the collection as it sailed on its way to England. Fortunately for the Linnean Society, the collection got away. I doubt whether an herbarium has ever before or since been the object of a diplomatic incident.
Fortey’s stories also include tales of the kind of humour that might not be obvious to laypeople, but which are regularly played within the scientific community – particularly in taxonomy:
Humour is a delicate matter in nomenclature. The clam genus Abra is crying out to be married with the species name cadabra; and so it was in a species named by Eames and Wilkins in 1957; Abra cadabra, a very satisfactory touch of humour. However, a subsequent authority decided that the species cadabra did not, after all, belong in Abra – so it was moved to another genus, Theora, and there is nothing very entertaining about Theora cadabra. …
Almost as good a pun as the Abra example is one of the numerous carabid beetles…Agra phobia. But my favourite remains the plant bugs described by one G. W. Kirkaldy in 1994. These genera all had the Greek suffix -chisme, pronounced ‘kiss me’. Kirkaldy managed to celebrate all the female objects of his affection by adding the appropriate prefix: Polychisme, Marichisme, Dollichisme and so on (there were rather a lot of them, apparently).
And then there are the people. Some of the stories Fortey tells are of people whom he knew or knows personally, while others were passed on to him by his own colleagues and friends. A few are practically “urban legends”: stories that are not entirely verifiable but are passed around anyway, like tales around a campfire (stories of sexual peccadilloes, in particular).
Throughout all of this, whatever sort of story he is telling, Fortey does so in a light, entertaining manner, his tone rather reminiscent of a grandfather telling stories to his favourite grandchildren. Even his humour is gentle, though there is no way one can miss the dry undertone underlying it, particularly when he thinks the subject matter deserves the sarcasm:
I understand that there is now a Creation Museum in Kentucky. Its own creators doubtless regard it as a ‘balance’ to all those pesky ‘evolutionary’ museums. It is interesting that the embodiment of respectability for an idea is still a museum, as if a Museum of Falsehoods were a theoretical impossibility. I look forward to a Museum of the Flat Earth, as a counterbalance to all those oblate spheroid enthusiasts.
But Fortey’s goal is not simply to share the history and workaday gossip of the Museum. Threaded throughout the entire book is Fortey’s defence of the natural history museum – note the small caps, for he is not simply talking about his own Museum, but of all natural history museums and other similar institutions all around the world. He establishes this in the first chapter, with this excerpt:
The Natural History Museum is, first and foremost, a celebration of what time has done to life. If the world is to remain in ecological balance, there is a pressing need to know about all the organisms that collaborate to spin the web of life. The planet’s very survival might depend upon such knowledge.
Though he has used the capitalised “Natural History Museum” in his statement to refer to his own institution, he makes clear throughout the rest of the book that the same statement applies to all natural history museums anywhere in the world, big or small, venerably old or brand-spanking new. All natural history museums are, in one way or another, participants in the great work of biological systematics: basically, identifying and naming all species on Earth, and then sorting them out into their proper place in the great Tree of Life (which, incidentally, is also the name of the online project with the same goal). The importance of this cannot be underestimated, especially where it relates to conservation. Fortey explains why in the following excerpt:
Every species on Earth has a biography and each one is fascinating in its own way. There may be biologies in the deep sea about which we know nothing. Some of them may be useful to mankind in medicine, or in dealing with extreme conditions as we begin to stretch our metaphorical legs to climb to the stars. Who knows? If we allow species to disappear before they have a chance to tell us about themselves it will be a tragedy to add to the many that our species has already inflicted on the world.
But for all that he extols the virtues of the natural history museum, Fortey does express worry about how things are being run. He is, he admits, a member of the old guard, and remembers a time when it was possible to be an eccentric and still generate notable work. This is not a privilege available to younger scientists, as he decries (in his own, gentle way) the “publish or perish” climate so prevalent in research:
Nowadays, it is publish or perish, Nature red in tooth and claw, unnatural selection–and, to the winner, the spoils. The description of a scientist, no matter how brilliant, as a ‘non-producer’ is a very effective way of blocking his or her promotion. The result is that too many papers are published and many scientists are so busy keeping ahead of their rivals that they don’t even have time to read what other workers write.
He also worries elsewhere in the book that the pressure to make money – a result of businesspeople running museums, not scientists – is limiting the kind of research that can be done in. If a project does not show potential for a profit margin within two or three years, then it will not likely receive funding. Fortey opines that, while not all projects can show profitability immediately (or even at all), research must still be done: on one hand, it is impossible to predict the value of any piece of research until something comes up in the near or far future to prove it so; on the other hand, with human-driven climate change altering ecosystems all around the world, all scientists are under immense time pressure to understand the world as it is now, before it is irrevocably changed. If these scientists are unable to do their research because of short-term financial concerns, Fortey fears that some important aspect about the world will go unrecognised, with unknown repercussions in the future.
Still, not all things about the future are negative. He is particularly positive about the Internet as a tool for sharing knowledge amongst not just scientists, but amongst laypeople as well:
[The internet] takes the scientist out of his turreted redoubt in one of the remote corners of Gormenghast and places him or her at the disposal all interested parties around the world. It passes on expertise acquired through hours of burrowing through obscure tomes so that anyone can use it. This is a kind of democracy of learning, a generous gift from the cognoscenti to those who wish to learn.
The above excerpt might read as slightly condescending, particularly in the last part, but there is truth to what Fortey says about the Internet closing the gap between professional and amateur scientists, and between them and the average person on the street, whose interest in science may be only marginal, but which must be nurtured if humanity is to keep on moving forward towards a better future.
Overall, Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is sure to charm any fan of the Natural History Museum in London, or of natural history museums anywhere in the world, or even of museums in general, but Fortey does more than just let the reader into the backstage world of his workplace. He also tackles the value of a natural history museum, its place in the greater pursuit of truth through science, and its importance not just for preserving the past, but for learning about what lies ahead in the future. With climate change an ever more pressing concern, the work done in natural history museums all around the world is even more important – and this book shows just how important that work is, even if it does not always seem obvious at first.