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.”