I’ve had the pleasure of working behind the scenes in a number of natural history museums. While a grad student, I had an office in the Natural History Museum in Dublin, spent a good deal of time every year in the collections of the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and a month at the Natural History Museum in London. As anyone who has spent time behind the scenes will tell you, not only are all the really cool specimens kept away from public view, but museums are populated with some very strange people! Richard Fortey’s latest book, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum (Knopf, 2008) offers a wonderfully entertaining and evocative depiction of life in the London museum. He covers the the history of the museum and its collections, the people, and the political skirmishes as administrators wrestled control of the museum away from the scientists and into the hands of businessmen.
Fortey’s central message is important: the sort of basic (often morphological) systematic and taxonomic work that is being done in museums is important and should not be diminished by administrators’ love of “sexy” techniques or charismatic taxa. Our intellectual landscape is being shrunken by the ever-increasing trend to turn museums into sites of performance and tourism rather than of research. Fortey is visiting ASU in February for the IISE‘s annual public symposium (Looking for Life: Adventures and Misadventures in Species Exploration), and will – no doubt – touch on these issues. I will, unfortunately, miss his visit because I will be in Oklahoma that week.
Those familiar with museums will recognize many archetypal figures. Members of the public will get a wonderful insight into what goes on behind the scenes. I highly recommend this book.