Excerpt from Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Dry Storeroom No. 1

The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

By Richard Fortey

Dry Storeroom No. 1

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


The Diplodocus has been there a long time. It is actually a cast of an original in Pittsburgh, which was assembled in the Museum during 1905. The great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie presented the specimen to King Edward VII, who then handed it over to the Museum in person at a grand public occasion. Diplodocus was proudly in place when I first came to the Natural History Museum as a little boy in the 1950s, and it was still there when I retired in 2006. I am always glad to see it; not that I regard a constructed replica of an ancient fossil as an old friend, it is just consoling to pass the time of day with something that changes little in a mutable world.

But Diplodocus has changed, albeit rather subtly. When I was a youngster, the enormously long Diplodocus tail hung down at the rear end and almost trailed along the floor, its great number of extended vertebrae supported by a series of little props. This arrangement was not popular with the warders, as unscrupulous visitors would occasionally steal the last vertebra from the end of the tail. There was even a box of "spares" to make good the work of thieves so that the full backbone was restored by the time the doors opened the following day. Visitors today will see a rather different Diplodocus: the tail is elevated like an extended whip held well above the ground, supported on a brass crutch which has been somewhat cruelly compared with those often to be found in the paintings of Salvador Dalí; now the massive beast has an altogether more vigorous stance. The skeleton was remodelled after research indicated that the tail had a function as a counterbalance to the extraordinarily long neck at the opposite end of the body. Far from being a laggard, Diplodocus was an active animal, despite the smallness of its brain. Nowadays, all the huge sauropod dinosaurs in films such as Jurassic Park show the tail in this active position. Many exhibits in a natural history museum are not permanent in the way that sculptures or portraits are in an art gallery. Bones can be rehung in a more literal way than paintings.

Now animatronic dinosaurs flash their teeth and groan, and carry us back effectively to the Cretaceous period, a hundred million years ago. Small children shelter nervously behind the legs of their parents. "Don't worry," say the parents, "they aren't real." The kids do not always look convinced. The bones that caused such a sensation in Andrew Carnegie's time a century ago, and that still command attention in the main hall, are now sometimes considered a little too tame. There is, to my mind, still something eloquent about the Diplodocus specimen: not merely its size, but that it is the assembled evidence for part of a vanished world. All those glamorous animations and movie adventures rely ultimately on the bones. A museum is a place where the visitor can come to examine evidence, as well as to be diverted. Before the exhibitions started to tell stories, that was one of the main functions of a museum, and the evidence was laid out in ranks. There are still galleries in the Natural History Museum displaying minerals, the objects themselves- unadorned but for labels-a kind of museum of a museum, preserved in aspic from the days of such systematic rather than thematic exhibits. Few people now find their way to these galleries.

The public galleries take up much less than half of the space of the Natural History Museum. 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 where I have spent a large part of my life-indeed, the Natural History Museum provides a way of life as distinctive as that of a monastery. Most people in the world at large know very little about this unique habitat. This is the world I shall reveal.

I had been a natural historian for as long as I could remember and I had always wanted to work in a museum. When there was a "career day" at my school in west London I was foolish enough to ask the careers master, "How do you get into a museum?" The other boys chortled and guffawed and cried out, "Through the front door!" But I soon learned that it would not be that easy. Getting "into a museum" as a researcher or curator is a rather arduous business. A first degree must be taken in an appropriate subject, geology in my case, and this in turn followed by a Ph.D. in a speciality close to the area of research in the museum. When I applied for my job in 1970, this was enough, but today the demands are even greater. A researcher must have a "track record," which is a euphemism for lots of published scientific papers-that is, articles on research printed in prestigious scientific journals. He or she must also be described in glowing terms by any number of referees; and, most difficult of all, there must be the prospect of raising funds from the rather small number of public bodies that pay out for research. It is a tall order. Even so, the most important qualification remains what it always was: a fascination and love for natural history. There is no other job quite like it.

Excerpted from Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey Copyright © 2008 by Richard Fortey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Goldfinch
    The Goldfinch
    by Donna Tartt
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction.

    Her canvas is vast. To frame a story about art, love and ...
  • Book Jacket: Toms River
    Toms River
    by Dan Fagin
    Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction

    In Toms River, investigative journalist Dan Fagin ...
  • Book Jacket: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
    The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
    by Gabrielle Zevin
    I feel like Gabrielle Zevin wrote this wonderful book, about a lonely New England bookstore owner ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Who Said...

At times, our own light goes out, and is rekindled by a spark from another person.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

Solve this clue:

P Your O C

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.