Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

Paleontologist author Richard Fortey comes across like an aging UK dreamboat with a twist of Indiana Jones' wry charisma

Book Review

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

by Richard Fortey
Knopf, 352 pp., $27.50

Natural history museums, such as the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, face a great challenge in our era of Jurassic entertainments and Grand Theft Auto. At least that is the impression left by the latest book from prominent British paleontologist, trilobite expert, and award-winning author Richard Fortey, Dry Storeroom No. 1. Dinosaurs aside, Fortey worries about children who solely associate natural history with schoolwork and seeks to engage adults who have outgrown such repositories of scientific knowledge. The title is clearly ironic.

A scientific and literary contemporary of U.S. scholars such as biologist E.O. Wilson and the late, great Stephen Jay Gould, Fortey offers an antidote to the perception of dry science, dishing about beloved characters and collections within the Natural History Museum in London. When it comes to his longtime workplace (popularly known as the "BM," or British Museum, a designation the now-retired author prefers), Fortey is a generous, accessible guide. A model institution built on colonial aspirations, the BM assembles the collections of Darwin and many other explorers. Fortey shows that collecting biological specimens, minerals, and fossils is a kind of art in its own right, and the classification of such findings, technically "taxonomy," has been accomplished by sometimes-obsessive geniuses too often lost to history. The author frequently comes across as a tweedy throwback, an aging UK dreamboat with a twist of Indiana Jones' wry charisma.

Time amid this collection of fossil collectors, butterfly enthusiasts, eel experts, and amorous botanists is well spent. Fortey cites literary sources from Swift to Nabokov and offers travel tales from the Arctic to Morocco's Atlas Mountains. As the world copes with climate change, infectious disease, and increasing threats to biodiversity, he argues for the need to protect science from becoming a political football. His colleagues offer real solutions for global challenges. Nor does it escape Fortey's notice that on this side of the pond, junk theories continue to compete with proven scientific facts. This earns Fortey the last word: "I understand that there is now a Creation Museum in Kentucky," he writes. "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 Flat Earth as a counterbalance to all those oblate spheroid enthusiasts."

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