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Journal of No. 118


May 27th, 2012

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum @ 03:02 pm


Richard Fortey's book is named after a somewhat mysterious storage room at the Natural History Museum (formerly part of the British Museum). I believe whatever review or precis I saw suggested that that was what the book was about, so I was expecting a strange unearthing of random semi-treasures not considered worthy of display, mothballed and forgotten. But that's not exactly what the book is about at all.
Fortey is/was an expert on trilobites at the museum, and this is really more his recollections of the people, all experts in their fields, with whom he came into contact, and the collections housed in the behind the scenes areas. And some history of the towering figures that were either very important in the Museum's history, or picturesquely eccentric. And plenty of insider gossip and scuttlebutt that makes for a good read, whether it's vodka hidden among the velociraptors or amorous trysts among the molluscs.
Despite not being about what I thought it was about, the book was still (?) very absorbing. I think the best thing it does is to set out how useful the giant collections are that are all behind the scenes, where no public visitor will ever see them. In the modern age, perhaps the point of the museum is to attract paying visitors, but the real value is in these collections that form the real basis of many disciplines.
And now, since I read it on kindle, the pull-quotes:
Nor is it permitted to cause offence by naming a creature johnsmithi after John Smith while stating that it is the most unattractive member of the genus. I have to say that Linnaeus himself did not follow this prescription, and named a useless weed Siegesbeckia after one of his enemies.

The edible properties of the truffle are not matched by their aesthetic ones, for most truffles look like some kind of knobbly animal excreta, which have been passed with not a little discomfort.

Mineralogists also tend to be the more mainstream scientists. They are the ones that wear the white coats, and hide away in the basement while reading dials from sophisticated machines. Only a few of them have gone mad, and many of them have lived blameless lives in the single-minded pursuit of mineral excellence.

'This stone is trebly accursed and is stained with the blood, and the dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it.'
 
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Journal of No. 118