Nov 22, 2010

Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1 is an informative and entertaining history of the London Natural History Museum, from its foundation as a wing of the British Museum in the late eighteenth century, through its transition to its current impressive, cathedral-like and very Victorian premises in 1881, and to the present day – when, impressive though it no doubt still is, it has become more of an attraction and less of a research institution, to Fortey’s clear regret.

Richard Fortey, a renowned palaeontology specialising in trilobites, worked at the Natural History Museum from 1970 to 2006. He describes his first day on the job as the equivalent of being told, “Amuse yourself—for money.” Don’t we all dream of jobs we would feel this way about? Fortey’s passion for the Museum and everything it represents comes across very clearly in Dry Store Room No. 1.

With humour and enthusiasm, he takes readers on a virtual tour of the South Kensington building, and also on a tour of the Museum’s history. Fortey shares all sorts of anecdotes about the colourful personalities who worked there over the decades: from Sir Richard Owen, Darwin’s archenemy, who was the Museum’s first superintendent; to the eels expert who was a great believer in the Loch Ness Monster; to the nemotades scholar who, in Fortey’s words, “is reminiscent of the Ancient Mariner except that he ‘stoppeth one in three’ to explain the importance of nematodes in understanding habitat diversity.”

The Natural History Museum
Photo Credit

(Sadly there’s also the far less amusing story of the Botany Keeper who was known among the female staff as “Octupus Ross”: “Women were warned never to go into the lift with Ross, or they would risk an attack of the tendrils. It was regarded as a kind of occupational hazard of working in the Botany department. The women concerned seem to regard their memory of the encounter with amused resignation.” Do they really? Such “amused resignation” sounds to me just like the stuff rape culture is made of.)

The Natural History Museum
Photo Credit

What I liked the most about Dry Store Room No. 1 was the ease with which Fortey mixes science, social history, and entertaining curiosities such as the story of the 1913 Piltdown Man hoax (of which, interestingly enough, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the suspects. Fortey explains that it’s highly unlikely that he was in fact responsible, but I couldn’t resist sharing this with you nonetheless.)

A history of an institution that has been around since the late eighteenth century will inevitably also be a history of our idea of what museums are and what they should represent; and in this case, also a history of how scientific research is done. This aspect of Dry Story Room No.1 fortunately does not disappoint. The Victorians were far from perfect, but we owe a lot to their endless curiosity, their public-mindedness, and to their passion for what they called self-improvement.

The Natural History Museum
Yours truly admiring the trunk of the giant Sequoia tree.

Dry Story Room No.1 is not only informative and fun to read, but also genuinely funny – and not in that “Ha-ha-I’m-cracking-a-joke” sort of way science writers have been known to be guilty of. Fortey is clearly someone who’s very passionate about science and nature, and also someone whose sensibility seems very close to my own. He was the perfect virtual tour guide, and a pleasure to spend time with.

Favourite bits:
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. I want to drag all visitors to the Museum up to the tree and explain about time, and how we exist atop a vast history that has made us who we are, and that we ignore that history at our peril. But if I did, I fear that I should be branded with the same label as that funny old man who comes up in the street to tell you about his messages from angels.

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.

Who are we, one species among so many, to obliterate the work of millions of years of evolution? Are we like the Greek gods acting on whimsy? Unfortunately, it is difficult to persuade everybody of this moral position. It appears on few political manifestoes, except as a kind of harmless truism, vaguely akin to ‘we must be kind to pretty furry things’. It is so much more important than that. I don’t want the only record of a species to be on a video archive, or one of those gloomy, pallid faces peering out of a jar in the Spirit Collections.
They read it too: Pages Turned

(Yours?)

29 comments:

  1. This sounds really interesting, although the "amused resignation" made me stop and reconsider that. I do think I'd still like to read this..

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  2. Iris: definitely do read it regardless - fortunately that's the only cringe-worthy bit. I couldn't NOT comment on it, though, for reasons I know you understand. Sadly that kind of attitude is far from rare :\

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  3. I wouldn't usually be interested in a book on this subject but you've made it very appealing. And after seeing your photo with the tree trunk I think I might make visiting the museum a point some time in the near future, it looks fascinating!

    I'm also a little...bemused?...about the "amused resignation" too. Possibly just a poor decision on the author's part?

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  4. I didn't realise the museum had started out as a separate wing of another. This book is fascinating. I have visited the museum quite a few times during my life time and have always enjoyed it. I love the line in the first paragraph you quoted.

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  5. Books about museums! Fun! I've been hankering after a good museum book for a while, although I was thinking more Smithsonian (I really loved it when I went there, like, 10 years ago Dinosaurs! Old airplanes!).

    Also, I really like your RSS feed graphic! (MOAR EXCLAMATION MARKS!!)

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  6. that sounds very interesting. not normally the kind of book I pick up, but interesting nonetheless.

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  7. I would LOVE this one. I'm a complete museum hound and drive my family and friends crazy if and when they go with me. I'm the person who spends hours in the place and then comes home and wants to check all sorts of books out from the library because the museum inspired me to learn more about a particular subject.

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  8. I loved visiting this museum when I was in London. This book seems like the perfect way to learn a bit more about how it came to be. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  9. I had this on my list a couple of years ago and can't remember who recommended it. Back onto the list it goes!

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  10. I take it that you've been there then, yes? I think this sounds like a good book to read especially if you were able to go to that museum!

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  11. This is definitely going on my wishlist. The Natural History Museum is one of our favorites and we've visited it a couple of times in London; plus I can't imagine anything better than a clever history of a museum right now. Working in one is still a dream job for me! :)

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  12. I wish this book were about a museum I liked a bit more than the Natural History Museum. Not that I dislike it, or anything, but it just doesn't have the same attraction for me as the V&A or the Tate Modern or the National Portrait Gallery. I wish someone had written this exact book, but about a London museum I love better. #waitspatientlyforuniversetorespond

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  13. There's just something about the museums, isn't it? ;) I find this book interesting, and I love that title too!

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  14. This book is on my TBR pile, and has been for a while, but I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I'd somehow gotten it into my head that it was about the Natural History Museum in NYC - I've not been to the one in London. I do love Victorian-era museums, though, so I'm not particularly disappointed by the revelation that I had things backwards!

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  15. Oh, I love quirky books like this. Am going to seek it out. Thank you!

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  16. Generally I would not pick this up as I am not interested in books like these, but then it does sound interesting. I think it will be fair to decide after I have read it :)

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  17. Sounds fun! Do you know of anything similar about the National Portrait Gallery? It’s my favorite museum in London.

    I do so wish that someone, somewhere, would write something like this about one of the Portuguese museums. I’m sure there’s lots of interesting stories there!

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  18. OMFG--I MUST GET THIS FOR RICH!!!! He will love this sooooo much!!! This is one of the places he most wants to take me when we make our trip (he's been before). Plus, when he was doing part of his dissertation research he spent some time measuring skulls in the bowels of the Smithsonian and a couple other museums, so I know how much he would appreciate this behind-the-scenes look. Seriously, Ana, this is like the perfect gift idea---thank you!!!!

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  19. I read this a couple of year ago and LOVED it--and don't think I've ever had a bookish friend mention it. His books Life, Earth, and Fossils are all wonderful, and DH loves Trilobyes--but as an academic historian, I especially love this one. So pleased to know others are reading it!

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  20. Oh, this sounds so fun! I admit the, title didn't give me much hope, but your review makes this book sound delightful. It sounds like the kind of mildly academic gossipy book I really tend to enjoy, so I must seek it out.

    Also, great photos of the museum! I've been there once and your photos brought it all vividly back to mind. What a great building!

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  21. This sounds like just the type of non-fiction read that I would love. Lately I have felt that I have gotten a bit over my shyness with non-fiction, but have had some stumbling blocks when trying to plunge ahead too ruthlessly, and I think this book would remedy that beautifully. Great review, you have made me so want to grab this book...right now!

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  22. Charlie: I'm sure he didn't realise how that came across, but that in itself is telling! And do visit the museum - it's a fascinating place!

    Vivienne: It's a wonderful place, isn't it? I need to go again before I love back home.

    Anastasia: The Smithsonian sounds amazing. So many museums, so little time (and money to travel) :P And thank you! I can't remember where I found it to be honest :P

    Tamara: I'm glad to have peaked your interest!

    Kathleen: It definitely sounds like a book for you, then :D

    Avid Reader: You're most welcome!

    Jenclair: I'm glad to have reminded you of it!

    Amanda: Yes, but it was the last time I was in the UK (2007). I really want to go again now that I've read the book!

    Meghan: Another thing this book did was make me miss my museum job! Mine was MUCH smaller and not nearly as exciting as the NHM, but still :P

    Jenny: I've never been to the V&A! Planning on fixing that next weekend :P Anyway, hopefully the universe will listen to you and Alex :P

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  23. I've heard such nice things about this book in newspapers and now here you are shining a light on it. It sounds really wonderful, kind of like a reality expose for 'geeks' (aka rocking cool people). jenny's comment made me giggle, but why shouldn't this become a lit trend? And if it spread to include things that aren't quite museums, like the Bodleian library, so much the better.

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  24. I used to study right behind the Natural History Museum for a year but I don't think I visited it once that year. Shame on me! However, it's one of my favourite museums in London so this book sounds really interesting. Did you know there is a library there as well?

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  25. This sounds like a lot of fun Ana! I want to read this book now. And I really must check that museum out next time I'm in London. Though I have seen a giant Sequoia in real life before!

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  26. You can add me to the list of people who cringed at the "amused resignation," but the rest of it sounds awfully good. I love museums--visiting them, reading about them and writing about them.

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  27. I most definitely dream of some job coming along where the instructions begin with 'amuse yourself'! :)

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  28. You're not going to believe this, but I saw this book in a bookstore last winter, meant to pick it up, didn't, and then couldn't remember the title after! So not only is this a fun post to read, but you have made my day by giving me the title again! lol Also having been to the museum two winters ago, I am curious to read more about behind the scenes, now that I've been in the building and felt the spaces.

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  29. This sounds interesting. Would love to work in a museum. Sigh. I might be a tad jealous of those in this occupation.

    I wonder about the "amused resignation" and if it's words that the women working there used, and not just the author. If so, then it's a sad state all around that someone with Octopus as his nickname would have been so tolerated, and not taken out back and the living you-know-what beaten out of him.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.