From mushroom gnats to amethysts, botanical prints to vertebrae,
the ordinary rests alongside the extraordinary in Dry Storeroom No. 1,
The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. Like artist
Cornell's boxes, the book presents a cloistered world with all the eccentric
curiosities inherent in the process of acquiring, labeling, and storing
Once viewed as markers of civilization, museums were a gentleman's pastime. Fortey's passing references to the British Empire could make it seem as though 19th century game trophies were on a par with women's genteel watercolors, but despite any omissions regarding colonialism or the ethics of hunting abroad for collections, the book maintains a charm difficult to criticize.
Rather than dwelling on the unsavory aspects of museum-makingat one point Fortey encounters a cupboard filled with models of human heads, arranged by racial stereotypethe book focuses on the rooms and researchers behind the public galleries. Small details often taken for granted are presented as they are; it is up to the readers to make of them what they will, and in the end, this may be the better, if safer, approach, considering that Fortey admits that his book is not meant to be a "comprehensive account". Being guided by an insider has its benefits and drawbacks, but the benefits outweigh any minor complaints about presenting a more dimensional portrait.
Fortey takes a strong position when it comes to the matter of preservation. He periodically returns to the idea that museums are "first and foremost, a celebration of what time has done to life", adding that "the planet's very survival might depend upon such knowledge." The connection is obvious in retrospect, but the environment isn't the first cause that comes to mind when thinking of museums (tourism seems more likely). This alone makes the book noteworthy, compelling one to realize that museums are far from being static institutions. For all that one might debate the methods for creating museums in the 18th and 19th centuries, the urgency to document and save species before they disappear is clear. Museums can be ideal harbingers for change, as when Fortey's colleague, Alwyne Wheeler, led the effort to clean the River Thames.
Fortey's passion for stewardship is convincing and comes across clearly in the way that the book's content and style mirror each other. This is not a fast-paced book to absorb in one sitting but its meticulous descriptions will please the reader who is sharply attuned to every turn of phrase. While at first glance Dry Storeroom No. 1 would appear to be of interest only to a niche audience interested in the nuances of taxonomy and other somewhat rarefied subjects, Fortey's ability to meld science and autobiography with an essayist's skill has created a book rich with trivia and anecdotes that has much to offer the casual reader. If the language is occasionally burdened by an excess of crystalline details, patience is rewarded in this tribute to the simultaneously timeless and mutable world.
This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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