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Book Review: Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey

Review by Sid Perkins

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Museums are more than collections of art and artifacts: They’re collections of the people who work there.

In Dry Storeroom No. 1, paleontologist Richard Fortey provides a behind-the-scenes look at London’s Natural History Museum, a fascinating account that’s less a history of the institution and more an intimate chronicle of the achievements, the hopes and frustrations, and the virtues and failings of the scientists who strive to bring the museum’s collections to life.

The book takes its title from a long-neglected room that Fortey discovered in the museum’s basement — a musty storeroom chock-full of tortoise shells, stuffed fish and remnants of exhibits. The room serves as a metaphor for the half-forgotten memories and untold stories of countless curators.

Scouring the world to collect, describe and name the world’s species is just a small part of the job, Fortey notes. One museum scientist’s knowledge of screwworms helped stop an outbreak among cattle in Africa dead in its tracks — an outbreak that might have devastated much of the continent’s wildlife.

Vital contributions can take odd forms: One expert in cryptogams (a type of plant) was mistakenly assigned to the Ministry of War during World War II because he was thought to be an expert at breaking codes (cryptograms). He nevertheless aided the war effort because he knew how to preserve water-soaked notebooks that had been recovered from captured U-boats.

Although Fortey notes these stories are peculiar to his museum, similar tales have likely unfolded at dozens of others around the world.

Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, 335 p., $27.50.

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