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Not just skeletons in those closets

August 17, 2008|Sara Lippincott | Sara Lippincott is a freelance editor specializing in science.

Dry Storeroom No. 1

The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

Richard Fortey

Alfred A. Knopf: 336 pp., $27.50

A book called "Dry Storeroom No. 1" may not often get riffled through at your local Borders. This is too bad. Its author, trilobite specialist Richard Fortey, is as engaging and funny as his title is musty and his zoological specialty extinct.

The natural history museum whose secret life he exposes is the one in London. Fortey, a prodigious writer ("Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth" is among his books), recently retired as a senior paleontologist there. The museum's public galleries account for less than half its space; Fortey introduces you to the rest. He walks you through galleries lined with jugged reptiles, stuffed birds, pressed flowers, cabinets full of pinned insects, teeth, bones and tiny corpses, all scrupulously labeled; into dusty warrens harboring tweedy Homo oldus scientificus; and on into pristine laboratories with DNA sequencers where white-coated researchers improve on Linnaeus. All over, in fact. Along the way, he entertains you with museum lore, much of it eye-popping.

The eponymous storeroom, full of castoff exhibits, is his central metaphor: "Dry Storeroom No. 1 was a kind of miscellaneous repository . . . a physical analogy for the jumbled lumber-room of memory. Not everything there was entirely respectable; but, even if tucked out of sight like suppressed memories, these collections could never be thrown away." This book is Fortey's own dry storeroom No. 1 -- not a systematic history of the museum but an idiosyncratic, rambling homage. "The Natural History Museum is, first and foremost, a celebration of what time has done to life," he writes. "[T]he labour of making all the species known is still in progress in the twenty-first century."

As for eye-popping: Did you know that most parasites are genderless? That some lichen species "are now hardly found outside old churchyards"? That certain sea spiders, "all legs and no body," seem not to have evolved one iota in 425 million years? That the museum's legendary whale specialist was drunk most of the time? ("It could be argued that alcohol was necessary to help him survive a life in the whale room with its overwhelming pong.")

Few punches are pulled. A feckless paleobotanist "had a large loom in her office, and I believe she was weaving when she should have been working." A departed head of science at the museum, hired to eliminate redundancy, was regarded as "a loose cannon. . . . With wild hair and a lopsided grin produced by many years of smoking a disgusting old pipe, he often looked like the kind of geezer who approaches you on stations to request a small loan." This evaluation is accompanied by a sketch "made on a napkin at a conference," which makes the man look demented. The photographs are copious and fascinating, including electron microscope views of hideous mite larvae and a shot of the inebriated cetologist poking at a whale carcass. Worth the price of admission.

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