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.
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.” 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 …