Mark Fisher

Eye of newt and toe of frog aplenty

Mark Fisher reviews Richard Fortey's portrait of the National History Museum

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.

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