508: Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey

by Gerard


508.07442134: Fortey, Richard. Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York: Knopf, 2008. 314 pp. ISBN 978-0-307-26362-9.

Dewey Construction:

  • 500: Science
  • 508: Natural history
  • +074: Museums, collections, and exhibits
  • +42134: Kensington and Chelsea Royal Borough

At the British Museum of National History in London, millions upon millions of specimens from the whole of the natural world lay in drawers, awaiting cataloging and research. Richard Fortey takes us on a tour through the facility, amiably telling stories about both current and past scientists, the politics of the institution, and the need for continuing work in the field of taxonomy.

Established in 1753 with a bequeath from Sir Hans Sloane, the Natural History Museum houses Britain’s massive collection of scientific research, specimens, and geological finds. Fortey, in Dry Storeroom No. 1, lets us in on the secret history of the museum—the stuff not normally discussed on the tours. His background as a scientist of trilobites led him to a position at the museum in the 1970s. Since then, he has tried to balance his twin loves of writing and natural history while also navigating the tricky politics of a public institution.

His history gathers together the characters from the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries to form a rollicking family portrait of scientists and researchers. At times, the story digresses away from the history of the museum into a sort of water cooler chat about the mating rituals of the modern researcher. But these are necessary to cut through the pages of dryish science history.

Most readers will enjoy the character sketches of the many people to grace the halls of the NHM, but there is also a great deal of science to be had here as well. Fortey details the interconnections between palaeontology, zoology, botany, and geology with reasonable skill. His explanation of taxonomic systems can be a little tedious, but overall, his message is clear: We need to study and preserve local flora and fauna before they disappear. To this end, a good portion of the book is devoted to conservation efforts and funding sources. All in all, a very pleasant book.