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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum » User review

Night at the museum with a personal tour guide

  • Sep 19, 2008
  • by
Behind-the-scenes look at London's Natural History Museum is an interesting peak at the "coalface"--Fortey's term for the daily work occurring beyond and below the public galleries--of museum science. Fortey describes the main work of the Museum, and its sister institutions in other countries, as systematic taxonomy--the attempt to exhaustively categorize and collect reference examples of each species of plant, animal, and mineral.

In an era of hard-to-obtain research grants and declining public funding, Fortey defends this work as valuable for several reasons:

--the need to find and identify species before they are destroyed by climate change, environmental destruction, or over-harvesting.

--potential beneficial uses of unknown species for the biosphere, for example expanded use of natural predators as environmentally-safe pesticides.

--helping future scientific endeavors by placing each species in its proper place in the taxonomy.

--and ultimately, the pure aesthetic satisfaction of knowing everything we can know about the world in which we live and upon which we are dependent.

Fortey spends time walking the reader virtually through the hidden corridors of each section of the Museum and using the discussion of the physical surroundings to talk in layman's terms about the science and the history of the science. Black-and-white photos in the pages with the text and color plates in the center of the book illustrate the surroundings and the collection as Fortey describes them.

But most interesting are the people who work behind the scenes. The current and past scientists, curators, clerks, Keepers, Directors, and Trustees are a diverse, intelligent, and intensely fascinating lot. After describing some of the more legendary polymaths who seemed as if they would scarcely have time to indulge in their many interests, Fortey asks in wonderment: "Are we lesser people today, or do we expect less of ourselves?"

Of course the Museum also has its share of misfits, misanthropes, recluses, shysters, and just plain crazy people deep in the hallways behind the public galleries, and Fortey seems to take special glee in describing them, many of whom he knew personally from his 30-plus years in the corridors. He writes with an understated, decidedly British wit and language. I'm guessing I missed some of his best jokes as they glanced off my tin American ear, but unless you get the opportunity to tour the hallways (which he compares to the phantasmagorical and never-ending castle in the The Gormenghast Novels) with Fortey in person, this book will be your personal tour guide.

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review by . September 08, 2008
This volume would be useful for patrons of the  Natural History Museum . i.e. London or New York  The book has extensive photographs of artifacts;  such as, a Martian meteorite (igneous rock formation).    There are memorable pictures of a giant plant-eating  dinosaur, the extinct moa (world's largest bird),  a duck-billed platypus and many other fossils of  yesteryear.     The volume would make a perfect gift for the student  in your house.
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


“The Natural History Museum is, first and foremost, a celebration of what time has done to life,” writes Fortey, whose engaging book similarly commemorates the vast record of life on Earth. As he meanders through the halls of the museum’s back rooms, Fortey proves to be an excellent, witty guide to the scientists and specimens that give testament to this history. Far from being a dry read,Dry Storeroom No. 1weaves together colorful anecdotes about the scientists, their research, and the value of museums, defending evolution while admitting how much we still don’t know about the Earth’s species (starting with beetles, for example). A few critics pointed out that Fortey errs on the side of including too much information, but most readers will embrace his guide to, well, everything having to do with life.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC
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ISBN-10: 0307263622
ISBN-13: 978-0307263629
Author: Richard Fortey
Publisher: Knopf

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