Museum Mystery

The New York Review of Books

Volume 55, Number 19 · December 4, 2008

The Spider Man and Other Stories

By Tim Flannery

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum

By Richard Fortey


The Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, is one of Britain’s most popular public institutions, attracting nearly four million visitors per year. Despite the fact that some natural history museums have made efforts to publicize their research and collections, most people have no idea at all what goes on inside them, and judging from Richard Fortey’s Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, that’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s not that museums don’t do important work. Indeed, with extinctions of species and other environmental damage increasing by the year, the research carried out in them is more vital than ever. It’s just that the way they run, and the kinds of people who work in them, sometimes seem hopelessly ill-fitted to modern institutional models of management.

Interesting Notes:

This review highlights many of the interesting stories and facts behind the Natural History Museum in London. Despite having so tons of visitors every year, what happens behind the scene of a natural history museum is often not known. This opens up the backdoors and reveals all the ‘hidden secrets’ and ‘perils’ of working in the museum, tracing the paths of several curators.

One may wonder how often does the following really happens?

Fortey tells us of Dr Mattingly – a mosquito expert – whose wife arrived breathlessly at the museum one day inquiring after her husband. It turns out that the family had packed and were waiting in the car to go on their summer holiday when Mattingly sallied out the front door. Before he could be stopped he had boarded the train to London, and when his wife arrived he was hard at work, having forgotten entirely about the family holiday. Such people of course never retire.

And how the working environment of a curator is like…

The “natural habitat of the curator” is a vast warren of corridors, obsolete galleries, offices, libraries and collections, and the way of life followed there, Fortey explains, is every bit as distinctive and codified as in a monastery.

But with a note on the naughty behaviour…

The old Museum might have been hidebound by petty rules, but the staff’s security of tenure meant that members of staff were free to be naughty,” says Fortey.

And quite often, once-potential hazards that could tear down the Museum were mentioned…

Richard Fortey is a museum man through and through, and perhaps it’s to startle us that he introduces himself as the person who “almost burnt down the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC”, The incident, occurring in 1976, involved a microscope, groups of trilobite fossils awaiting study, and Fortey’s pipe, which he wrongly assumed to be dead and emptied into a trash basket full of papers . “If I had succeeded I imagine that I would now be one of the most famous scientists in the world,” he says.

For more, you can grab the article here.

*The article was brought to our attention by His Excellency, Mr Joseph Koh, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Negara Brunei Darussalam, who is also an avid nature lover and an arachnid expert.

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