The Spider Man and Other Stories

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,1 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.

For better or worse, Dry Storeroom No. 1 lifts the veil on the inner penetralia of the world’s premiere natural history museum. The book, Fortey says, is “my own storeroom,” a lifetime’s collection of thought and observation, “curated through memory.”2 In fact Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a kind of The Lives of the Twelve Caesars of the museum world, mixing the good works, struggles, and scandals of the curators much as Suetonius does with his Caesars. Imagine the working lives of the researchers who study seaweeds in such an institution. They toil away in an obscure corner of a vast, ramshackle building where long-forgotten rooms open off endless corridors. If they don’t turn up at staff meetings nobody notices, and supervision of any type is a rare thing indeed. The archetype of the curator as a bent, bespectacled man in a white coat who turns in fright as the door to his cell is opened is sometimes all too sadly true. I should know, for I was a curator of mammals in a natural history museum for fifteen years, and a museum director for seven.

The single-mindedness of some curators is astonishing. 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. Even after their salary stops they turn up punctually for work each day, often for decades. The Australian Museum where I worked had an “old man’s room” specifically for the use of superannuated curators. Imagine what happens when such a world falls into the hands of a prime minister like Margaret Thatcher. Such has been the fate of museum after museum in recent decades.

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, D.C.” 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.

Thankfully, Fortey has achieved fame through less destructive means. Beginning his career as a researcher on the trilobites (marine, woodlice-like creatures that became extinct 250 million years ago) at the Natural History Museum in London, he has gone on to become one of the world’s most acclaimed natural history writers. His previous books include Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (2000), which is perhaps the only popular work devoted exclusively to his obscure charges, and Life: Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1997), one of the finest popular overviews of the evolution of life on earth ever published.

A child’s first visit to a natural history museum is usually memorable. The Egyptian mummies, the hushed halls crammed with skeletons, stuffed animals, and who-knows-what floating in jars of clear liquid make it an exciting and spooky occasion, even if entire skeletons of huge dinosaurs are not on display as they are in New York. For all the impact, however, few of us dream of working in a museum. In this Richard Fortey is an exception: for as long as he can remember he’s aspired to do just that, and has been fortunate enough to spend his entire career at what is arguably the greatest of them all. His book takes the form of an extended tour of the Natural History Museum, both in time and space, beginning when Fortey first passed through its curator’s entrance in 1970, and ending with the momentous changes that occurred around the time of his retirement in 2006.

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. The morning “key ritual,” as it was practiced when Fortey joined the institution, is a good example. The museum’s keys were “massive, old-fashioned steel affairs, such as you might expect to be carried by a ‘screw’ in a prison, or a miser to open an antique oak chest,” and each key was color-coded, allowing their bearers access only to areas they were responsible for. The “ritual” took place each morning at the “key pound,” where the workers would call for their keys. Fortey, for example, would cry out “47 Grey” and after a few seconds the uniformed key-pound warder would hand him the keys to his office. Woe betide those who forgot to return the key in the evening: “Forgetful members of staff were commanded to come back late at night from Brighton or East Grimstead to restore their keys to the hook.”

What does a curator in a natural history museum do? Such scientists are expected to become the authority in their field, and they are known among their colleagues by their discipline. Fortey was “the trilobite man,” the arachnidologist “the spider man,” and so forth. An archetype was the museum’s aphid man, Victor Eastop, “a small and neatly bearded man with a prominent nose,” which Fortey quips was quite suitable for smelling out the smallest difference between species. Eastop was in his eighties at the time of Fortey’s writing, and while he had difficulty remembering people’s names, he was “still on top of the greenflies” and his unique expertise in identifying these agricultural pests was in demand all over the world. In working on an economically important group of organisms, Eastop was fortunate, for his travels kept him in touch with the world.

Fortey claims, perhaps in jest, that such experts eventually come to resemble the species they study, and as unlikely as this seems I’ve noticed something similar myself. The lizard man at the Australian Museum had something of a reptilian set to his jaw, while our crab man (who rose to become director) was an expert nipper at the heels of the unproductive. Not everyone working in such institutions is on the payroll, for eccentrics of independent means with a taste for natural history often find a home there. Fortey says that museums become “a kind of asylum for them where a life could be spent painlessly away from the real world.” A prime example of this was the Natural History Museum’s Baron de Worms, who, Fortey says, “sounds like he should have been the authority on annelids.” He was in fact an aristocratic entomologist of independent means who “wore thick pebble glasses and a suit like a banker.” Famous for his gluttony and for falling asleep at lectures, he was frequently found waiting outside the ladies lavatory, though no one ever discovered to what purpose.

The Baron de Worms gives just the merest hint of the eccentricity Fortey reveals in his book. Indeed some of the eccentricities he relates border on the pathological. For example the “fish man,” Denys Tucker, was famous in his day for having made the discovery that eels breed in the Sargasso Sea. But somehow he became intrigued with the Loch Ness monster and became convinced that an enormous eel-like creature (perhaps a plesiosaur) lurked in the depths of the loch. For a respectable museum to have a star scientist become involved in such pseudoscience was embarrassing, and the administration warned Tucker to desist. He was a stubborn fellow, however, and refused to drop the subject. Eventually he was sacked, but not before he had sued the archbishop of Canterbury (then chairman of the museum trustees) for unfair dismissal.

Leslie Bairstow seems to have combined eccentricity with inefficiency. A brilliant Cambridge graduate whose appointment to the paleontology department in 1932 caused great excitement, he studied fossils found in rocks of the Jurassic Age from Yorkshire. Although Bairstow was retired by the time Fortey joined the museum in 1970, he still came to work every day, and made himself look extraordinarily busy. Yet he never published a thing—not a single scientific paper over a career spanning four decades. Instead, he developed a mania for curatorial methods, inventing a referencing system which operated on cards and knitting needles. And it was not just Jurassic fossils that concerned him. Whenever he received a parcel he would keep the string, which he filed according to length. Upon his departure from the museum a number of such boxes were discovered, including one labeled “pieces of string too small to be of use.”

Fortey also tells the sorry tale of Randolph Kirkpatrick, the “foram man.” Foraminifera are marine organisms that usually are no larger than the head of a pin, but one kind, known as a nummulite, grows to the size of a coin. Fossils of these creatures can form limestone, and it happens that the pyramids at Gizeh in Egypt are made of limestone that consists almost entirely of nummulites. Inspired by such occurrences, Kirkpatrick began to see nummulites everywhere. Indeed he came to believe that much of the earth was composed of nummulites. In 1906 he published a book called The Nummulosphere, outlining his spectacular theory and providing pictures of thin sections of basalt with lines dotted in to help the viewer see the “nummulites” embedded therein. Basalt is a volcanic rock, and the nummulites supposedly present were entirely illusory. Perhaps, Fortey speculates, such fantasy is the inevitable cost of the unfettered freedom to explore afforded the curator.

Some of the research done in natural history museums finds immediate application. Peter James was the Natural History Museum’s “lichen man” for many years. He specialized in British lichens, and could identify even the most obscure of the nation’s 2,272 species from memory. This, it turns out, was a most useful talent, for various species of lichens absorb heavy metal pollution into their tissues, and are thus invaluable for monitoring the spread of such pollutants. Most species of lichens are also extremely susceptible to air pollution, meaning that a survey of lichen diversity gives a ready assessment of a region’s overall air quality. Remarkably, lichens also preserve a record of pollution through time, for they grow slowly, and by examining lichens growing on gravestones their rate of growth can be established, and thus the inner sections of their ring-like growth pattern can be sampled for pollutants of a particular period.

Lichens, fungi, and algae are referred to as cryptogams, which literally means “hidden marriage”—a reference to their means of reproduction, which long remained a mystery to botanists. During World War II, a misunderstanding about the meaning of this term led to a breakthrough of the greatest military importance. Geoffrey Tandy was the museum’s “seaweed man.” He only ever published two scientific papers, a lack of productivity that seems to have been owing to a hidden marriage of his own, for Tandy shouldered the burden of running two families in tandem.

His great moment came when a functionary in the Ministry of War became confused between cryptogamists and cryptographers, and recruited Tandy to the British center for signals intelligence at Bletchley Park, where some of the world’s brightest minds were working on cracking the German Enigma Code. During Tandy’s stay at Bletchley Park several sodden notebooks holding vital clues to the German code were recovered from sunken U-boats, but they seemed damaged beyond recovery. Tandy, however, knew exactly what to do, for the problem was not so different from preserving marine algae. Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy dried the sodden pages and made them readable, an important contribution to deciphering the Enigma Code.

In Fortey’s early days at the museum the technicians occupied a lower social strata than the curators. Even the toilets were segregated, labeled “Gentlemen” and “Scientific Officers.” During the 1970s and 1980s such archaic practices were slowly abandoned, and a more modern system of management installed. Yet this had both good and bad results. One of the museum’s most stoic scientific officers was without doubt Peter Purves. To him fell the malodorous task of defleshing the whales that washed up occasionally on the British coast. I have some personal experience of this task. The whales arrive in all states of decay, and it’s not unknown for them to become so full of gas as a result of internal decomposition that they literally explode, spraying foul greenish fluid in all directions with great force. Warning is sometimes given by bursts of post-mortem flatulence, but it’s a light-footed curator indeed who can dodge the spray of oily fluid, which seems able to carry the unique odor of rotting cetacean deep into one’s pores, mouth, and nasal cavity. After defleshing one particularly “ripe” dolphin I found that, despite long baths and showers, I carried the smell, taste, and feel with me for days.

Purves seems to have coped with the tribulations of his job by resorting to the bottle. Fortey says that he was “an inveterate drinker” who “would weave his way down the front steps and out of the Museum at about the time that most of us were having our afternoon tea break.” His accent was indeterminable—possibly Irish or Scottish—and he spoke, as do many dypsomaniacs, in “a series of short barks separated by significant pauses.” On one occasion he fell into the “stripping tank,” which was filled with rotting whale bits and a caustic solution, burning himself badly. But for all of his drinking he must have had a remarkably steady hand, for he was uniquely talented at extracting and then slicing the delicate waxy ear plugs of whales, which are our only sure way to determine their age. It’s rumored that the museum’s “whale man,” F.C. Fraser, built his reputation on Purves’s work, eventually being elected to the Royal Society, and all without acknowledging the true role of his technician.

Dealing with such people in this modern age of occupational health and safety, performance appraisal, and so forth can be a sore trial. The truth is that worm men, bat men, and even whale men often prefer the company of their charges to that of other human beings, and they tend to see any interference in their single-minded pursuits as gross and unjustifiable meddling. And I must say I sympathize with them. Purves probably could not have worked without his bottle, and who knows how the Baron de Worms may have reacted if banished from the vicinity of the ladies’ lavatories?

There is a strong thread running through Dry Storeroom No. 1 that objects and skills, no matter how obscure, will one day find their use, and of course that is what natural history museums have long been about—storing ancient collections and providing support for esoteric curators. Modern attitudes toward employment run strongly counter to such notions, and Dry Storeroom No. 1 reveals lucidly why natural history museums in particular have had such difficulty in adapting to the modern world with its notions of “accountability,” relevance, and economy. The book’s final chapters tell what happened when, during the Thatcher era, attempts were made to force the Natural History Museum into the modern world. “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. Perhaps they were naughty, but most of them toiled unrecognized, building the basic knowledge upon which our understanding of the natural world depends.

Accountability was the tool that changed that. Scientists had to be productive, and that meant publishing or perishing. It was no longer good enough to work for years on the one great monograph that would lay the foundations of an entire field. Instead, researchers had to compete to get published in the few leading journals. And they were expected to obtain a grant for their research, and (perhaps most irksome of all for some) to take part in public events so as to demonstrate their relevance. The pressures that such changes engendered meant that many natural history museums became war zones between staff and management during the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the most counterproductive of all changes foisted upon museums was entry fees. With the notable exception of many US institutions, most natural history museums were free to the public, and as a result they were frequently visited by schoolchildren and residents of nearby neighborhoods. Although the new entry fees were often paltry, they precipitated an ugly chain of unintended consequences. First, government grants were cut in anticipation of the funding to be provided by the new charges. Yet the numbers of visitors frequently fell by more than half almost overnight, which not only resulted in a deficit in the government funding, but severely affected revenue from museum shops and cafés as well. This induced frenzied budget cutting, yet directors were forced to pour ever more funds into increasingly expensive traveling exhibitions to attract the elusive public. Inevitably, scientific budgets suffered greatly. Collections languished and expert staff members were not replaced. Eventually, the balance between the research and exhibitions staffs was irrevocably altered. Many museums have never recovered their scientific relevance, and to this day most (London’s Natural History Museum being an exception) retain their accursed entry charges.

Not all recent changes, however, have been bad news for natural history museums. New scientific tools have allowed the analysis of fragmented DNA, which is commonly present in museum collections, and this has given old museum specimens renewed importance, for museum collections are the only places where we can see and sample extinct species such as thylacines and dodos. DNA analysis is now allowing us to reconstruct parts of the genetic code of such species, and indeed even older DNA is being studied. Perhaps the most exciting such study involves reconstructing the genetic code of the Neanderthals, a project which looks likely to reach completion in the next few years.

Other DNA research projects are of a more practical bent. Some scientists are examining collections of the carnivorous marsupials called Tasmanian devils in order to better understand the origins of the facial tumor disease that is currently devastating the species. Others are sampling the fossil bones of ancient cattle to better understand their genetic diversity. They’ve discovered that most of the genetic diversity of cattle was lost thousands of years ago, so if ancient, lost genes can be resurrected, anything from milk production to disease resistance might be improved. Who would ever guess that such a gold mine of information would be hidden in drawers full of dusty old bones?

More than anything else the work of museums crosses from one generation to another. Just think of the unbroken line of curators who have, for half a millennium, preserved and cared for the only fleshy remains to have come down to us of the dodo, the flightless bird endemic to the island of Mauritius, which became extinct in the last half of the seventeenth century. Only one bad decision almost robbed us of the treasure. Around 1755 the last known stuffed dodo was found by the Oxford Zoology Museum’s trustees to be badly decayed, and was ordered to be destroyed, though thankfully someone recovered the head and a foot. I’ve held that precious dried dodo head in my hands, pondering the innumerable vicissitudes that any museum collection must endure: thefts, warfare, Richard Fortey’s supposedly dead pipe. In this turbulent world it’s a miracle that we have the richness of natural history collections that we do. Let’s hope that we can hand them on, intact, to future generations.

  1. 1

    The Natural History Museum, for example, has in recent years opened its Darwin Centre, showcasing many of the 22 million specimens that comprise its collections, as well as the research that is done on them.

  2. 2

    The actual storeroom for which the book is named is a vast, “neglected and apparently forgotten” room stuffed with desiccated specimens, ranging from sunfish to human skeletons, that probably couldn’t be fitted in anywhere else.