This book is a metaphor: a book about a museum that is itself a museum, crammed with cabinets and curiosities; a natural history of the Natural History Museum. It contains collections, of objects and of people; it educates and entertains; it helps you to see the world, and the NHM, with new eyes.
Richard Fortey is an ideal guide. He has loved the NHM for most of his life, from the moment of being interviewed for a job there in 1970 until his retirement in 2007 as Keeper of Palaeontology, a Fellow of the Royal Society and President of the Geological Society.
He takes as his text taxonomy, the basis for naming the living world: ‘If you don’t have the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost.’ Without Linnaeus’s binomial system of genus and species it would be impossible to order the NHM’s 80 million objects into the inventory of nature that it is. As Fortey says, ‘it is necessary to have a dictionary of species before you can read the complex book of nature’ and make some sense of what ‘time has done to life’.
Fortey takes us behind the public galleries into the scientific heart of the museum, its laboratories and libraries that lead off corridors of cabinets containing newts, frogs and fenny snakes; stuffed spiders and bottled gnats; giraffes’ heads, seacows, sheets of baleen from the mouths of whales, jars of ‘gloomy fish’, a glass of goannas. He guides you through this labyrinth of knowledge, past hidden rooms and dim staircases to a tiny locked lift that raises you magically from Palaeontology to the Herbarium, the inner sanctum that holds the 265 book-like volumes of Sir Hans Sloane’s herbarium, the collection of dried plants that is the founding collection of the museum. For Fortey, to be employed here to work on trilobites, was ‘one of the greatest privileges’. ‘It was a season ticket to a world of wonders”.
He introduces you to the people whose scholarship has animated the NHM for the past 250 years: to the great collectors (Sloane, Joseph Banks, Mary Anning, Charles Darwin) and to curators and keepers as diverse and fascinating as the objects they studied. Edward Heron-Allen, the 19th-century expert on single-celled Foraminifera who was also a Persian linguist, novelist and maker of violins. Nevil Story-Maskelyne, mineralogist, pioneer of photography, who combined being Keeper of the Geology Department in the 1850s with a Chair at Oxford, while representing Cricklade in the House of Commons. Peter Whitehead, the elegant ‘fish man’, who discovered a lost Mozart manuscript when trawling a Polish archive for a 16th-century work on the Brazilian herring.
He writes well. The charisma of an expert on fossil fish is caught by the way ‘he pioneered a style of shabby chic … in which a sagging velveteen jacket played an important part’. He marvels at ‘the beauty of lobed leaves’ in the herbariums although he cannot resist alliteration — the tooth of an elephant is ‘a monument of masticatory might’ and insects are ‘pickled in perpetuity, a washed out parade of the panoply of life’.
He has a charming sense of humour, delighting in the Abra cadabra species of clam and, commenting on the eponymous forteyi species of fossil, ‘all of them remarkably handsome examples of their kind’. He has an eye for detail and an ear for the telling phrase: ‘the glue on an old label is a feast’; lepidoptera are ‘the show-offs of the Entomology Department’; trilobites are ‘the beetles of the Palaeozoic’.
His love of the museum is underpinned by a passionate belief in the importance and relevance of natural history, and in the grandeur of its enterprise. No subject, and no museum, is as directly or economically important to us as the NHM, nor as crucial to our understanding of climate change. The 1753 British Museum Act specified that its objects ‘shall remain and be preserved in the Museum for public use for all posterity’.
Fortey’s book is not a polemic but this sense of mission fuels his anger at the way in which, over the past 50 years, science, scholarship and research have been downgraded and marginalised by administration and presentation. His viewpoint throughout is that of the scientist in the field or laboratory, not that of the trustee or director in the boardroom, and at times there is a sharp, cracking noise as scores are settled. It is this, and his appreciation of the potential of the new technologies, that prevents his celebration of the wonders of this museum becoming sentimental or nostalgic. He knows how new molecular techniques, the decoding of genomes and the unravelling of the structure of DNA will help as we continue to explore new worlds, not least in the oceans, those realms of ‘eternal darkness and great pressure’.
Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator on 26 August 1710 that
it is indeed wonderful to consider that there should be a sort of learned men who are wholly employed in gathering together the refuse of nature … and so hoarding up in the chests and cabinets such creatures as others industriously avoid the sight of.
He anticipated Richard Fortey.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 1, 2008