Sunday, February 01, 2009

When you hear The Museum, this is the one you think of

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, museums, natural history, autobiographies

It looks like a cathedral. When it was established in 1887, its aim was to exhibit God's creation in all its glory. Though natural history is not considered a religious subject any more, the collections at The Natural History Museum, London still constitute one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles to be had. There are a multitude of resources that describe the NHM in detail; its Wikipedia article is a good starting point. Also see the article on the British Museum, its parent institution.

My aim is not to add to an already huge mass of words about the NHM and her sister museums, but to introduce a mini-museum of mental images produced by Richard Fortey, the Trilobite Man at the NHM until his recent retirement. Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is a lovely, cluttered storeroom of the marvelous people and sequestered collections that make the NHM more than a place to see dinosaurs and famous gemstones. It is a great research institution in its own right, with collections exceeding 80 million items and a research library (actually, several thereof) comprising 7 million volumes.

One cannot properly curate such a mass of material in a corner closet. This little map, from the brochure given to visitors, shows only the public areas of the museum. They make up about a tenth of the total hallway/gallery space. Behind numerous doors, a person privileged with a "backstage tour" will find literally acres of galleries, hallways, passages, offices, and laboratories. Dr. Fortey likens the place to Gormenghast, the endless castle of fiction.

Apparently, when the author first began work at the museum, he did quite a lot of exploring, finding his way to the Large Mammal department, the Entomology section, or the Ornithology collections, then having to puzzle his way back to his own office. He is certain that the buildings still house marvels he may never see. Note to prospective travelers: it is quite possible to make a week-long trip to London for the express purpose of seeing the NHM, and not see all of its public displays.

Some of the museum's scientific staff are quite public figures, sociable, amiable, and quite comfortable with popping up in a public gallery to nosh with the crowds, or lobbying the politicos whose good favor is now needed for the voluminous research grants that keep the institution going. Others, and this is the majority, are more private men and (increasingly) women, who identify species, extract fossils from matrix, sort specimens, describe new species in print, spend endless hours amid books making sure one has one's history right, corresponding with colleagues worldwide, and, more and more, writing grant proposals.

For about a century, a museum scientist was a Civil Service employee with tenure and more security than nearly anyone else on Earth. These days, it is publish or perish, pretty much like any professorial post in Academie. But what a lot of curious characters passed across the stage of the NHM in the meantime!

Though there have been rumors of a secret distillery hidden in the full-size model of a Blue Whale, when its underbelly trapdoor was sealed shut in 2007, nothing was found inside but a telephone book and some small change; they were sealed in. The real Dry Storeroom No. 1 is a huge lumber-room with a great many almost-cast-off objects…which is also considered quite a trysting place. One "Whale Man", who was quite expert at determining a whale's age by removing a little bone in its ear, would never attempt the ear surgery when sober.

But I am most impressed with the volume of printed material the institution's personnel has produced. The author writes of this or that polymath, who spent a lifetime preparing a series of monographs on, let us say, a diverse family of snails (gastropods), one which takes up a couple feet of shelf space, and all in quite readable prose. One then wonders how the fellow also managed to become an expert musician or artist, serve on the board of the opera company, and attend every opening of a certain favorite orchestra or theater company.

Finally, the author tells us again and again how the collections and their curators have been crucial in the service of public health or safety—one expert even saved the British Isles from the muskrat. (I'd thought until now that no weedy, pest species had ever been wholly extirpated. It seems we're much better at exterminating the dodos and rock wallabies, but not pesky critters like crow or woodchuck). If there is a Ten Commandments of Museums, one of them is surely Never Throw Anything Away. Access to collections going back five hundred years allows Dr. Fortey and his colleagues to solve taxonomic problems that can be solved no other way.

And this is his true love, taxonomy. What is that? The Naming of Names. If you and I need to correspond about what you might call the Rainbow Serpent, which is called the Shiny Racer in my neck of the woods, only after we establish that both names refer to Serpens iridescens can our work together be meaningful (I made all that up, and I Googled it first, to make sure it didn't exist!). From time to time, re-studying a genus of bats may result in a complete restructuring of their relationship to other bats. That is what science is about; not setting up a standard that can never be challenged, but discerning the way things really are.

While molecular biology is now a big help to taxonomy and systematics (the science of ordering all those species and their relationships), there is still a great need for the "Trilobite Man" or the "Antelope Woman" to study not just morphology, but the life-habit and ecology of all the species of interest, to see how they fit into the fabric of the natural world. Dr. Fortey writes of taxonomists,
Their duty is directed towards an inventory of the biosphere, which now needs their services more than ever before. It is probably one of the better manifestations of what it is to be human.

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