Giant reptilian skeletons, stuffed birds and groups of marginally behaved, uniform – clad school children. These are, perhaps, the images that spring to mind when we think of a museum of natural history. In his book Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, Richard Fortey takes us on a tour behind this familiar stage and shows us the important research and documentation that takes place in the vast wings of an internationally important museum – where the public, including screaming school children, rarely follows.
Fortey should know; he spent much of his working life at London's Natural History Museum where he was until recently a senior paleontologist. He's been a fellow of the Royal Society since 1997 and is the author of acclaimed books on natural history, including Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. Fortey makes an impressive case, early on, for the tremendous importance of the Natural History Museum, especially the part of it that flies under the radar of the press and public consciousness. One chapter invites the reader to open a few of the thousands of drawers that rest in the museum's backstage. Inside each drawer is a beautifully laid out and scientifically important display that helps the world understand, for instance, the relationship between various molluscs or leafing plants. Such displays and collections are essential to tracking species' names and cataloging new species and placing them with their relatives as they are discovered.
Dry Storeroom No. 1 also has a lot to offer to the non-scientist, aided by Fortey's witty, approachable writing style. His account of how staff at his museum uncovered the Piltdown Man fraud will be of interest to practically everyone. And the sacking of a high-ranking museum scientist who could not resist the lure of Nessie, the fabled Loch Ness monster, makes entertaining reading. Fortey also reports on his peer, Martin Hall, who should be – but isn't – in the history books for saving Africa. Hall, also a Natural History Museum scientist, discovered a flesh-eating worm in African livestock before it became an apocalyptic plague. When African officials didn't immediately believe him, he bred some of the worms' larvae in his hotel room. An ensuing sterilization program saved the continent's agricultural industry and possibly also prevented the worm from crossing over into the wildlife population. "It would have been an unprecedented catastrophe for an already blighted continent," Fortey writes.
Fortey's previous books offer glimpses into our geological past; this one conveys a fascinating look behind the scenes of an institution rich in the tradition of scientific curiosity. Walking past impressive displays of dinosaur bones, creepy crawlies, and other items, Fortey goes deep into the museum's private spaces to spotlight ongoing research into our planet's history, showing how it contributes to our understanding of Earth's present and future.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.