Saturday, 16 February 2008

Dry Store Room No. 1: the secret life of the Natural History Museum – Richard Fortey *****

“Times they are a changing” and even such a venerable institution as the Natural History Museum is not exempt. Richard Fortey’s tour, it seems, is in the nick of time. The museum he takes us round won’t be like this much longer.
He guides us along the corridors of his beloved Natural History Museum, opening doors to reveal rooms full of carefully labelled fossils, beetles or butterflies. He lingers in the library, reverently turning the pages of the leather-bound tomes. And he curates the scientists and keepers, a dedicated and eccentric bunch of workaholics, who continue to study long past their retirement date.
Throughout there is a sense of urgency – the pressing need to catalogue and name every insect, every plant and every mammal. No scuttle fly and nematode is too insignificant. For Fortey it is a race against time, a race against the ever-increasing rate of climate change and he seems acutely pained by the thought of losing a species without it even being named, like losing a child before a christening.
There’s a wistful obituary-like feeling about this book, a sadness at the demise of the scientist hunched over his microscope. The machines are taking over: why follow a complex classification procedure when a species’ DNA can be read instead? Why bother naming something when we known its gene sequence? Although Fortey recognises their potential, for him some of the magic has gone.
Dry Store Room No. 1 is a fascinating book and Fortey’s passion is clear. The curious habits and foibles of the museum’s botanists and entomologists bring the book alive. It’s a shame that the mineralogists are such a dull lot though: gemstones and meteorites are interesting enough but without the human stories this department doesn’t really sparkle. Even so, the book is easy to read and will inspire a sense of awe for the work of the museum.
Paperback:  
Review by Maria Hodges

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