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Dry Storeroom No. 1

The untold stories of London’s Natural History Museum.

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To read Dry Storeroom No. 1 is to take a long, meandering journey through the back alleys and byways of London’s Natural History Museum. Your guide, Richard Fortey, the museum’s retired senior paleontologist, has set out to detail “the achievements, hopes and frustrations, virtues and failings of the scientists,” to “bring those invisible people into the sunlight.”

As he ambles through the museum, Fortey takes no little delight in sticking his head into offices and pulling open drawers containing row after row of specimens. It’s an effective way of telling his story: He moves through the museum’s different departments, lingering on diversions when it suits him and moving on when he’s ready.

His narrative is an amalgam, weaving together colorful anecdotes about the scientists and explanations of their work. On one page, we hear about the scientist who happened upon a lost Mozart manuscript and the cryptogam (ferns, mosses, and the like) expert who was mistakenly recruited to help decode Nazi cryptograms.

On the next, we learn about reclassifying fungi and the elimination of screwworm from North Africa. By combining the dual strands of personalities and livelihoods, Fortey is able to make the scientists – and the science – come to life. The many excellent illustrations and photographs sprinkled through the text also help to tell their stories.

Scientists behind closed doors
Leslie Bairstow is one noteworthy example. He began at the museum in the department of paleontology already equipped with a golden reputation. (Upon his appointment, a colleague rushed through the offices crying: “We’ve got Bairstow!”) Bairstow began collecting belemnite fossil specimens and studying them on ever finer scales. He accumulated specimens so prodigiously that, just to keep track of them, he developed a complicated reference system involving knitting needles.

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