The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey

Dry Storeroom No. 1

Finished April 2015
Recommended for fans of museums, biology, collections
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2


Fortey had me hooked with the idea of the behind-the-scenes maze at the British Museum. There’s something about that that appeals to me; not only knowing the stories, but the physicality of the space. In my first few years working at the hospital, I used to delight in knowing the back stairwells and unused corridors one could take to get from one decade of the building to another. How could a building like this not be filled with hidden mysteries?

Tucked away, mostly out of view, there is a warren of corridors, obsolete galleries, offices, libraries and above all, collections. This is the natural habitat of the curator.

It is a historical tour of the museum, staff and taxonomy by a knowledgeable, urbane, humorous guide. Fortey was hired as a Junior Researcher (specializing in trilobites, as one does) in 1970 and has been there ever since–even past his retirement in 2006. He is clearly a wit, apparent most often in the early chapters. In one anecdote, he shares his reaction to timekeeping requirements:

The diary was a hangover from the early days of the Museum, being a little book into which the employee was supposed to write his activities, morning and afternoon, and which was collected every month and signed off by the head of the department… I took to writing “study trilobites” on the first day of the month and ditto marks for the rest of it.

I devoured the first part of this book. I meant to read just a chapter before bed, a way of lulling my brain into imaginative sleepiness without catching me up into murders and anti-heroes, but Fortey’s enthusiasm engaged me. He clearly loves taxonomy and biology, and has a deep respect for the research process. Although he is generally apolitical, he does occasionally allow himself commentary on problematic aspects of the history of museums, the history of science and politics influencing research. He shares minor scandals about researchers, stories of discoveries, and anecdotes about the space inside the museum. In many ways, much of it is about the history of science and of taxonomy as much as a museum.

“Science is often like this: an idea has been around for a while before new evidence suddenly pushes it forwards. And then researchers start to think: maybe this example is not so surprising after all.”

I confess, like a number of enthusiasts who’ve illegally  sampled collections, I felt a little bit of atavistic greed when he talked about the Herbarium. I probably shouldn’t be allowed in there.

I stumbled at the section on bugs. I just could not read it before bed, no matter how engaging the story, particularly when he mentions their connection to forensics. Sill, I regained my footing as he continued with typical humor.  The mineralogy section is perhaps the least engaging for both of us, though he does his best to liven it up with stories about gems and meteorites. There’s a nod to modern equipment and the machines in this section, which was the only place I skimmed–about 3 pages in total–because of the specificity and complexity of material. For the rest of it, Fortey deftly explains in a way that anyone can understand.

There’s something supremely eerie about the idea we can catalog life by reducing it to it’s essential, whether through description of DNA or through the “type” specimens, the first and ideal type of a thing described. I remember the first time I opened a drawer at my college’s biology department and saw specimen upon specimen of dead bird.

To be fair, I think Fortey understands life can’t be conceptualized down to its representation:

“Modern methods of characterizing species employ molecular sequencing to identify a characteristic part of the DNA… But this process leaves out everything else. Every species has its own tale, a story about how it earns its living , meets its mate or warns off its enemies: the interesting stuff. You don’t understand London just by reading the names in the telephone directory.

The summary looks back at some of the influencers, for better or for worse, and includes a mention of significant female researchers while noting the sexism of the system. He finalizes with a bit of a lament about the requirements of funding and its effect on ‘pure’ research. However, there’s a note of hope–the very fact that so much information is available by way of the internet and through collaborations, we might once again see the rise of the amateur enthusiast contributing to the knowledge base. Overall, a fascinating and entertaining look through the corridors and boxes in one man’s memories in the British Natural History Museum, as well as the future of taxonomy.

“I could not suppress the thought that the storeroom was like the inside of my head, presenting a physical analogy for the jumbled lumber room of memory… This book opens a few cupboards, sifts through a few drawers. A life accumulates a collection: of people, work and perplexities. We are all our own curators.”

Trilobite from The Fossil Museum


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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10 Responses to The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey

  1. Angela says:

    This is definitely my type of book!

  2. rosewoodpip says:

    I worked for a hospital, too, some years ago (in an office, not on the floors). Even as an office worker there was plenty of exploration that happened, either as a side effect of finding somebody in another department, or getting lost along the way. The cross hallway in the basement that eventually led to the morgue was a source of shivery interest, but out of some combination of squeamishness and respect I never set foot back there. I still have dreams about those corridors occasionally. So your first paragraph was nice and evocative, and the last quote from the book tied into the mishmash of memory and dreams from that time of my working life beautifully.

    The pictures add quite a bit to your review, too. I’m sorry GoodReads isn’t behaving for you so it can have its full effect there. –Beth N.

    • thebookgator says:

      Thank you, Beth. It’s so interesting working in buildings that have been added on to over the decades without major structural changes. I found a ‘steam tunnel’ shortcut once that I couldn’t believe I was allowed (I think I used it from the basement of the newer part of the building to the mailroom in the older part so I could weigh a personal package). I know exactly what you mean about dreams!
      Formatting pictures and then adding the references at GR is extremely time consuming. It can be done, but I’d rather just do it one place.

  3. julio says:

    great review. love all the links and images you shared. and yay, trilobites!

  4. Mimi says:

    Lovely review! Since I can’t visit museums around the world (or even the country), I take their virtual tours and that’s almost as good, but having a tour guide like Richard Fortey, who’d tell you all the juicy details and behind-the-scene anecdotes, would be a fabulous experience. Will definitely check this book out.

  5. This sounds really interesting, I am definitely going to pick up a copy!

  6. Pingback: 2015 A Reading Year in Review (not the city) | book reviews forevermore

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