Behind the Galleries
This book is my own store room, a personal archive, designed to explain what goes on behind the polished doors in the Natural History Museum. All our lives are collections curated through memory. We pick up recollections and facts and store them, often half forgotten, or tucked away on shelves buried deep in the psyche. Not everything is as blameless as we might like. But the sum total of that deep archive is what makes us who we are. I cannot escape the fact that working for a whole lifetime within the extravagant building in South Kensington has moulded much of my character. By the same token, I also know the place rather better than any outsider. I am in a position to write a natural history of the Natural History Museum, to elucidate its human fauna and explain its ethology. There are histories that deal with the decisions of the mighty, and there are histories that are concerned with the ways of ordinary people. An admirable history of the Natural History Museum as an institution, by William T. Stearn, was published in 1981. What Stearn largely left out was an account of the achievements, hopes and frustrations, virtues and failings of the scientists who occupied the "shop floor"- the social history, if you like. My own Dry Storeroom No. 1 will curate some of the stories of the people who go to make up a unique place. I believe profoundly in the importance of museums; I would go as far as to say that you can judge a society by the quality of its museums. But they do not exist as collections alone. In the long term, the lustre of a museum does not depend only on the artefacts or objects it contains-the people who work out of sight are what keeps a museum alive by contributing research to make the collections active, or by applying learning and scholarship to reveal more than was known before about the stored objects. I want to bring those invisible people into the sunlight. From a thousand possible stories I will pick up one or two, just those that happen to have made it into my own collection. Although I describe my particular institution I dare say it could be a proxy for any other great museum. Perhaps my investigations will even cast a little light on to the museum that makes up our own biography, our character, ourselves.
At first glance the Natural History Museum looks like some kind of cathedral, dominated by towers topped by short spires; these lie at the centre of the building and at its eastern and western corners. Ranks of round-topped Romanesque windows lie on "aisles" connecting the towers which confirm the first impression of a sacred building. Even on a dull day the outside of the Museum shows a pleasing shade of buff, a mass of terracotta tiles, the warmth of which contrasts with the pale stucco of the terraces that line much of the other side of the Cromwell Road. Courses of blue tiles break up the solidity of the façade. The entrance to the Museum is a great rounded repeated arch, flanked by columns, and the front doors are reached by walking up a series of broad steps. Arriving at the Natural History Museum is rather like entering one of the magnificent cathedrals of Europe, like those at Reims, Chartres or Strasbourg. The visitor almost expects to hear the trilling of an organ, or the sudden pause of a choir in rehearsal. Instead, there is the cacophony of young voices. And where the Gothic cathedral will have a panoply of saints on the tympanum above the door, or maybe carvings of the Flight from Egypt, here instead are motifs of natural history-foliage with sheep, a wolf, a muscled kangaroo.
The main hall still retains the feel of the nave of a great Gothic cathedral, because it is so high and generously vaulted. But now the differences are obvious. High above, where the cathedral might display flying buttresses, there are great arches of steel, not modestly concealed, but rather flaunted for all they are worth. This is a display of the Victorian delight in technology, a celebration of what new engineering techniques could perform in the nineteenth century. Elsewhere in the Natural History Museum, a steel frame is concealed beneath a covering of terracotta tiles that completely smother the surface of the outside and most of the inside of the building; these paint the dominant pale-brown colour. Only in the hall are the bones exposed. This could have created a stark effect but is softened by painted ceiling panels; no angels spreadeagled above, but instead wonderful stylized paintings of plants. It does not take a botanist to recognize some of them: here is a Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris
),* there is a lemon tree (Citrus limonum
), but how many Europeans would recognize the cacao plant (Theobroma cacao
)? Many visitors, and most children, don't even notice these charming ceiling paintings. Their attention is captured by other bones: the enormous Diplodocus dinosaur that occupies the centre of the ground floor, heading in osteological splendour towards the door. Its tiny head bears a mouthful of splayed teeth in a grinning welcome.
has been there a long time. It is actually a cast of an original in Pittsburgh, which was assembled in the Museum during 1905. The great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie presented the specimen to King Edward VII, who then handed it over to the Museum in person at a grand public occasion. Diplodocus
was proudly in place when I first came to the Natural History Museum as a little boy in the 1950s, and it was still there when I retired in 2006. I am always glad to see it; not that I regard a constructed replica of an ancient fossil as an old friend, it is just consoling to pass the time of day with something that changes little in a mutable world.
But Diplodocus has
changed, albeit rather subtly. When I was a youngster, the enormously long Diplodocus
tail hung down at the rear end and almost trailed along the floor, its great number of extended vertebrae supported by a series of little props. This arrangement was not popular with the warders, as unscrupulous visitors would occasionally steal the last vertebra from the end of the tail. There was even a box of "spares" to make good the work of thieves so that the full backbone was restored by the time the doors opened the following day. Visitors today will see a rather different Diplodocus
: the tail is elevated like an extended whip held well above the ground, supported on a brass crutch which has been somewhat cruelly compared with those often to be found in the paintings of Salvador Dalí; now the massive beast has an altogether more vigorous stance. The skeleton was remodelled after research indicated that the tail had a function as a counterbalance to the extraordinarily long neck at the opposite end of the body. Far from being a laggard, Diplodocus
was an active animal, despite the smallness of its brain. Nowadays, all the huge sauropod dinosaurs in films such as Jurassic Park
show the tail in this active position. Many exhibits in a natural history museum are not permanent in the way that sculptures or portraits are in an art gallery. Bones can be rehung in a more literal way than paintings.
Now animatronic dinosaurs flash their teeth and groan, and carry us back effectively to the Cretaceous period, a hundred million years ago. Small children shelter nervously behind the legs of their parents. "Don't worry," say the parents, "they aren't real." The kids do not always look convinced. The bones that caused such a sensation in Andrew Carnegie's time a century ago, and that still command attention in the main hall, are now sometimes considered a little too tame. There is, to my mind, still something eloquent about the Diplodocus
specimen: not merely its size, but that it is the assembled evidence for part of a vanished world. All those glamorous animations and movie adventures rely ultimately on the bones. A museum is a place where the visitor can come to examine evidence, as well as to be diverted. Before the exhibitions started to tell stories, that was one of the main functions of a museum, and the evidence was laid out in ranks. There are still galleries in the Natural History Museum displaying minerals, the objects themselves- unadorned but for labels-a kind of museum of a museum, preserved in aspic from the days of such systematic rather than thematic exhibits. Few people now find their way to these galleries.
The public galleries take up much less than half of the space of the Natural History Museum. Tucked away, mostly out of view, there is a warren of corridors, obsolete galleries, offices, libraries and above all, collections. This is the natural habitat of the curator. It is where I have spent a large part of my life-indeed, the Natural History Museum provides a way of life as distinctive as that of a monastery. Most people in the world at large know very little about this unique habitat. This is the world I shall reveal.
I had been a natural historian for as long as I could remember and I had always wanted to work in a museum. When there was a "career day" at my school in west London I was foolish enough to ask the careers master, "How do you get into a museum?" The other boys chortled and guffawed and cried out, "Through the front door!" But I soon learned that it would not be that easy. Getting "into a museum" as a researcher or curator is a rather arduous business. A first degree must be taken in an appropriate subject, geology in my case, and this in turn followed by a Ph.D. in a speciality close to the area of research in the museum. When I applied for my job in 1970, this was enough, but today the demands are even greater. A researcher must have a "track record," which is a euphemism for lots of published scientific papers-that is, articles on research printed in prestigious scientific journals. He or she must also be described in glowing terms by any number of referees; and, most difficult of all, there must be the prospect of raising funds f...
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“Fortey. . . in his affectionate portrayal of the institution in which he spent his working life. . . sneaks us behind the scenes with all the glee of a small child seeing for the first time the museum's iconic Diplodocus
skeleton . . .always authoritative. . . the beauty of the book is that - just like a museum - you can visit the different sections in any order you choose, lingering in the places that most take your fancy. . . and there is plenty of solid science to enjoy, elucidated with brilliant flair.”—Sunday Times
“Fortey has a scientist's regard for fact but a poet's delight in wonder. This is a rare intoxicating insight into a hidden community intent on unlocking the universe's myriad secrets.”—Metro
"Engaging. . . .Fortey's writing is enough to make the behind-the-scenes work of the museum totally fascinating. . . . (his) delightful book, like the museum it describes, is both rambling and elegant."—Sunday Telegraph
“This book is worthy of the place it tells us about, and that is a pretty lofty chunk of praise.”—The Times
“Richard Fortey's wonderful book . . . shows the unspectacular elements of the museum collection as the most interesting part of its work, while placing the well-known exhibits in a new and often comical light. . . with eccentricity flourishing unchecked among its staff Fortey has amassed a brilliant collection of anecdotes about their habits.”—Daily Telegraph
“In this loving survey of his life at the museum, Fortey. . . is never less than enthused by all the museum's collections.”—Financial Times
“Compendious and entertaining. . . much of the narrative interest of the book is carried anecdotally, by wonderful stories. . . Fortey gives us a vivid virtual tour of the museum's hidden stores and retired displays. . . . it is a book filled with a passion for nature and pride in an institution that has done so much to compile its inventory. Fortey is a knowledgeable guide, with a keen eye and gentle humour."—Evening Standard
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