Joyce's Reviews > Dry Storeroom No. 1

Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey
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Mar 28, 2010

bookshelves: librarybook
Read from March 28 to May 15, 2010

This hilarious memoir makes the case that British eccentrics, particularly of the scientific variety, are an endangered species due to rapid habitat loss. The author spent his entire career as the "trilobite man" at the Natural History Museum in London -- in the Department of Palaeontology, reachable by a door hidden behind a skeleton of a giant sloth in the public gallery, of course -- and he is a gleeful guide to everything that will be lost in a world where research and particularly taxonomy are no longer considered sexy commodities.

Speaking of which, Fortey is surprisingly open about the love lives, mental disorders, and substance abuse problems of his colleagues -- the title refers to a noted trysting spot in the Museum -- and even seems rather disappointed by the notoriously clean-living minerologists. But in my opinion his best anecdotes are the ones directly related to research: how Linneaus's notebooks almost touched off a war, why mycologists tend to be watercolorists, numerous examples of scientists coming to resemble their objects of study (touchingly, the mollusc people work in a cozy "oyster bed" in the basement), stories of demi-official collecting expeditions like the one organized in the early 1970's by 4 young entomologists (who all looked like members of Fleetwood Mac) for £3,000.

Fortey employs a charmingly old-fashioned turn of phrase, sometimes to a baffling extent, as when he refers to fossil shells "shaped like the wafers that hold scoops of ice cream" (uh... you mean ice cream CONES??). I particularly love it when he busts out with some dotty aside like "It has been one of my life's unfulfilled ambitions to eat the giant mushroom Termitomyces that grows deep inside the termite mounds in Africa"; or "they glide over the forest floor feeding on decaying vegetation: a slime mould in this stage of its life is like a patch of living snot". Boundless affection for nature's works -- especially animals, slightly less for plants and a rather stiff relationship with rocks -- is exuded from every chapter.

Lest you get the impression that this memoir is merely an academic gossipfest, let me note how deeply the author understands and makes the case for scientific research and particularly the unending minutiae of taxonomy. Even those of us who read a lot of popular science books are probably incapable of explaining so clearly the actual processes by which species are collected, prepared, described, named, verified, accepted, stored, and sometimes reclassified. Still less could we describe the pros and cons of the major taxonomic methods in play today. Fortey can and does, grounding his anecdotes in the day-to-day work of the palaeontologist, zoologist, and botanist.

The scientific method is not a pretty thing practiced by angelic gentlemen in this author's view -- at one point he notes, "It might actually be the case that having an obstructive, disagreeable, temperamental, competitive or even downright anarchic group of people all scrapping and competing is the best way to push knowledge forwards." -- but his lively account gives you a sense of what the world will lose when market-driven, value-added, customer-focused museums entirely take over the natural homes of those few obsessives who can recognize thousands of midges, butterflies, fungi, or trilobites as easily as most people can recognize the faces on Facebook.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Andis (new) - added it

Andis Great review, Joyce! :)

message 2: by Petra Eggs (new)

Petra Eggs Your review was an excellent read. I did want to read the book but it sounds very dry and more of a memoir than about the science of my favourite museum.

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