Book review: ‘Dry Store Room No.1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum’ by Richard Fortey

The personalities and politics behinds the scenes at the Natural History Museum.

Dry Store Room No.1From the first couple of pages, I knew I was really going to enjoy this book. Richard Fortey has written a fascinating and highly entertaining account of the personalities and politics behinds the scenes at London's Natural History Museum.

And what a bunch of characters there have been! Too many to mention here, although I was particularly taken by an expert in cryptogams (species which reproduce via spores), who was mistaken for an expert in cryptograms (codes and ciphers), and recruited in the government's top secret, code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. As luck would have it, the scientist's expert knowledge of algae later helped rescue sea-damaged German code books recovered from U-boats. I was also amused by the paleontologist who hoarded pieces of used string, filing them according to size, including one file labelled 'pieces of string too small to be of use'.

But it's not all humourous anecdotes. Fortey also explains how the world is changing: how museum scientists struggle for funding to study 'non-sexy' species; how traditional museum exhibitions with genuine artefacts have been modernised… with plenty of knobs to turn and audiovisual displays; and how the men and women in pin-striped suits have taken over from those in white lab coats.

Dry Store Room No.1 documents the end of an era, and the start of a new one. No doubt some changes will be for the better, but some are undoubtedly for the worse.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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