The interview for my job was conducted in the Board Room. It was 1970. To reach the rather stern room on the first floor of the Natural History Museum I had passed through several sets of impressive mahogany doors. A large and very polished table was in the middle of the room, the kind of table that is always associated with admonishment. On one wall there was and still is a splendid portrait of the first Director of the Museum, the famous anatomist Sir Richard Owen, by Holman Hunt. He was an old man when he sat for the portrait, and is dressed in a brilliant scarlet robe, beautifully painted to show the glint of satin, indicative of some very superior doctorate. His glittering eyes survey the room, intent on not tolerating fools gladly. Each candidate was interviewed by the Keeper of Palaeontology- who was the head of the appropriate department-and his Deputy Keeper, together with the Museum Secretary, Mr. Coleman. The Secretary was a rather grand personage at that time, who more or less ran the museum from the administrative side. There was also a sleepy-looking gentleman from the Civil Service Commission, who was there for some arcane purpose connected with the fact that the successful candidate would be paid out of the public purse. I was dressed in my best, and indeed only, suit and very nervous.
I was applying to be the "trilobite man" for the Museum. The previous occupant of the post was Bill Dean, who had gone off to join the Geological Survey of Canada. He left behind a formidable reputation. Trilobites are one of the largest and most varied groups of extinct animals, and being paid to study them is one of the greatest privileges in palaeontology. I had not yet completed my Ph.D. thesis, and was young and inexperienced. My fellow candidates were ahead of me by a few months or years. We would all get to know one another well over the course of our professional lives, but for the moment conversation was restricted to twitchy pleasantries. We sat on uncomfortable chairs in a kind of corridor and awaited our turn in the Board Room. Eventually, I had to go in to face the piercing eyes of Sir Richard. The questioning began. Fortunately, I had made some interesting discoveries in the Arctic island of Spitsbergen where I had been carrying out my Ph.D. research at Cambridge University, so once I got going I had a lot to talk about, and my general air of nervousness began to subside. I had discovered all kinds of new trilobites in the Ordovician* age rocks there, and studying these animals seemed a matter of pressing excitement. Youthful enthusiasm can occasionally count for more than mature wisdom. The man from the Civil Service Commission stirred himself once and asked if I played any sport. The answer was no, except for tiddlywinks. He then sank back into apparent torpor. The Keeper smiled at me benignly. Hands were shaken, and it was all over. Did I imagine something less severe in Sir Richard Owen's expression as I left the Board Room?
Several weeks later I was offered the job. In view of my youth I was taken on as a Junior Research Fellow, which meant, I think, that if I did not work out I could be politely escorted out of the cathedral. But important to me was that I was entitled to go behind the mahogany doors into the secret world of the collections, and to receive a modest salary for doing so. I was being paid to do work that I would have done for nothing. I had a season ticket to a world of wonders.
To trace my journey behind the scenes, follow me along one of the few galleries remaining from the old days of the Museum, one flanked by a high wall lined with cases bearing the fossils of ancient marine reptiles: ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. They look as if they are swimming along this wall, one above the other, making a kind of Jurassic dolphin pod (although of course they are not biologically related to those similar-looking living mammals). They comprise a famous collection, including some specimens that are the basis of a fossil species name. One of the ichthyosaurs probably died in the process of giving birth to live young, although few visitors notice the label explaining this curious and fascinating fact.
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.
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