Originally posted by Brian Switek
On March 1, 2009, at 7:42 PM
I don't quite know what to make of Richard Fortey's latest book Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret life of the Natural History Museum. When I opened my copy to the first chapter I was expecting something like Douglas Preston's written tour of the American Museum of Natural History, Dinosaurs in the Attic, but Fortey's book turned out to be something entirely different.
I enjoyed Preston's book because it used a motley collection of artifacts, both on display and behind closed doors, to tell stories about the AMNH and the people who worked there. It was not comprehensive or even representative, but it enriched my understanding of the institution. Fortey's book, on the other hand, is not so much a tour but a personal memoir.
While reading Dry Storeroom No. 1 I felt as if I had entered Fortey's office and sat down in an uncomfortable chair to listen for hours about what he most valued about London's Natural History Museum. Fitting its subject matter the prose has an ornate, but dusty, air, as if the old is being dragged against its wishes into the new. This is particularly apparent in Fortey's discussion of cladistics; although he recognizes its utility he makes his affection for the old Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species hierarchy known. This sort of struggle appears again and again in the book, just as modern museums struggle to honor their history and stay up to date.
But what is Dry Storeroom No. 1 actually about? It is not so much about the "secret life of the Natural History Museum" as it is an apologia for the importance of taxonomy. The majority of chapters revolve around the theme of collecting and naming various kinds of organisms. The problem is that what Fortey has to say about the importance of taxonomy could probably said in the space of a chapter (or an essay) but it is instead dragged out through nine.
As such there is little discussion of museum specimens and few stories about their acquisition. A plethora of quirky personalities are mentioned but Fortey both praises and damns many of his subjects. He highlights their scientific achievements but then adds a generous portion of gossip and hearsay about affairs and other controversial matters. (An alternative subtitle could have been "A smattering of gossip from the Natural History Museum.") Conflict and controversy do occur behind closed doors at academic institutions, but rather than making scientists more human Fortey makes the researchers at the NHM seem like a group of cantankerous, oversexed, and kleptomanical men. (Women receive fleeting reference until the penultimate chapter, as if Fortey suddenly realized that he had nearly left them out.)
This is not to say that Dry Storeroom No. 1 is an entirely bad book. If read with an understanding of what it is, a long essay on the value of collecting and naming organisms, it can often be quite enjoyable. The problem is that the chapters run long and can be a bit shattershot. I sometimes found myself twenty pages in without a good idea of how I got there. There are intriguing ideas within the book and interesting stories begging to be brought out and further examined, but I felt like I was trying to wade my way through a mishmash of ideas.
The best way to read Dry Storeroom No. 1, then, may be to treat it like a visit to a museum. There is no "right" place to start (in fact, I would encourage readers to start with the last two chapters) and not every section will pique the same interest. Some parts are repetitive or familiar and so at those times it might be best to move on to something else that catches your eye.
After reading Fortey's book I felt that he was straining to say something important about how taxonomy is the basis for further understanding of the natural world. For an organism or mineral to be properly understood it needs to at least have a name and a place among what is already known. It is part of the mission of museums to accomplish this task, and Fortey justly pins them as vast storehouses of natural knowledge. Fortey overbuilt on this core idea, however. He struggled to build a grander edifice and marry this vision with a number of anecdotes but the whole comes off as an incongruous mess. Even so, it was worthwhile to visit Fortey's "personal museum." Perhaps not all of the exhibits were properly placed or described effectively, but it still makes an appealing case for the importance of museums in a changing scientific landscape.