- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Knopf (August 19, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0307263622
- ISBN-13: 978-0307263629
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,109,982 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum
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From Bookmarks Magazine
“The Natural History Museum is, first and foremost, a celebration of what time has done to life,” writes Fortey, whose engaging book similarly commemorates the vast record of life on Earth. As he meanders through the halls of the museum’s back rooms, Fortey proves to be an excellent, witty guide to the scientists and specimens that give testament to this history. Far from being a dry read, Dry Storeroom No. 1 weaves together colorful anecdotes about the scientists, their research, and the value of museums, defending evolution while admitting how much we still don’t know about the Earth’s species (starting with beetles, for example). A few critics pointed out that Fortey errs on the side of including too much information, but most readers will embrace his guide to, well, everything having to do with life.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
Fortey, senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London and author (Life, 1999; Trilobite! 2000), here turns his eye to the inner workings of a natural history museum. Though a paleontologist and an expert on trilobites, Fortey looks at all of the major departments of the museum, examining how they work, providing brief backgrounds on the sciences themselves, and telling stories of many of the museum’s scientists both past and present. Explaining how science works through his stories from the museum, Fortey tells of truffles and how they illustrate the science of taxonomy; the Piltdown Man fraud and how more modern techniques exposed the hoax; how one of the ichthyologists found a lost Mozart manuscript while searching for a sixteenth-century book’s illustration of a herring; and how the “First Law of Museums”—never throw anything away—turned up a cast of the Koh-i-noor diamond made before it was recut. Well illustrated with photos, this chatty book meanders from tale to tale in the endlessly fascinating manner of a good storyteller. --Nancy Bent
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The Smithsonian has been called "America's attic." The Natural History Museum is the attic for the entire British Empire! Like all attics, it contains a great deal of odd stuff. Odd people, too. Richard Fortey, a career paleontologist at what old-timers like me still call the "BM" (for "British Museum," from which it is now divorced), knows or knew a great many of them. This book is partly a history of the Museum, akin to "Bankers, Bones and Beetles" by G. Hellman for the American Museum of Natural History (New York), partly an insider's memoir, partly a commentary on what museums are for, and partly--thank God--a collection of hilarious anecdotes about those odd museum people: the anal-retentive curator who saved string in bins by length, the smallest bin being reserved for pieces "too short for use;" the oh-so-systematic lothario with the well-curated, fully-annotated collection of pubic-hair samples of all his inamorata; the knighted Museum director who was so rotund that people referred to him behind his back as "Sir Cumference" and "the volvox" (Volvox being a perfectly spherical microorganism); and perhaps my favorite, the foraminiferan specialist Edward Heron-Allen, who was also a Persian linguist, a poet, a historian of stringed instruments, and an occultist who possessed an amethyst looted from a temple in India in 1855 and haunted by a Hindu ghost. If these teasershaven't piqued your interest, nothing will!
Beyond the gossip and the science, this is also a book about the nature of work and how it has changed. What used to be a leisurely career at the museum, where for many workers there was minimal oversight and no real pressure to publish, seems to have become in recent years driven by the need for productivity and cost-effectiveness. Although this change is in some ways sad, it also means that a scientist can no longer retire before anyone happens to notice that he has spent his career collecting bits of string.
And beyond being a book about changes in scientific work, Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a book about the changing role of the museum. Is it a place to do science, or is it show biz? Even Richard Fortey admits that when it comes to engaging the public, there's a lot to be said for show biz.
Here Fortey turns his gaze inward, sort of, to examine his work-home of the past 40 years, the Natural History Museum in London. He examines and plays around with the nooks and crannies of its history, physical spaces, objects artifacts and, perhaps most fun of all, the odd, curious, brilliant, pompous, fascinating, funny, exasperating, pugnacious, officious and tumultuous personalities who also called it their work home.
Any long-lived institution is bound to have its characters, but museums encourage it. No one gets rich in museum work (though it sometimes attracts those of, um, independent means). Long-term museum people pretty much have to love it - or rather, love their subject of study and research. Single minded obsession with, say, trilobites, for example, tends to bend one's personality into interesting shapes. Fortey understands, and likely suffers some from, this and his treatment of his coworkers, and the many who came before, is warm, witty and thoughtful, even if he doesn't seem to suffer fools (or bureaucrats) gladly.
I'll not get into great detail here. If you are reading reviews of this book, then 9 chances out of ten, you are going to enjoy yourself in its pages. Fortey is a good writer writing about interesting things and people. If you are a museum person, you will be right at home here. If the thought of reading about the behind the scenes history of this sort of institution sounds dull and boring, then, well, you should move along. The rest of us will get along just fine here.