An insider’s tour of one of the world’s great museums.
Hired as the “trilobite man” at London’s Natural History Museum in 1970, Fortey (Earth, 2004, etc.) intimately knows its collections and many of the scientists who worked on them during his tenure. This thoroughly entertaining, beautifully written book displays his broad curiosity about scientific history and storyteller’s eye for the telling anecdote. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the museum’s work: nomenclature, paleontology, zoology, botany, entomology and so forth. Each gives fascinating details about various aspects of its subject. For example, the Archaeopteryx fossil, one of the museum’s treasures, has given successive generations of researchers better and better insight into its relation to both birds and dinosaurs, thanks to increasingly sophisticated tools of analysis. The author also provides a wealth of detail about the scientists themselves, often as entertaining as the objects they study. We learn that Linnaeus named a particularly useless weed after one of his rivals and that the museum’s technicians used to cook sausages over Bunsen burners in the back. Fortey conscientiously limns the history of the museum and its many departments. He relates how various collections got started, often by colonial administrators or military officers who took up a hobby in distant postings. The famous controversies and hoaxes are here as well, notably the faked “Piltdown Man” fossil, which fooled two generations of anthropologists before it was exposed. The author offers a good explanation of why the establishment fell for the Piltdown hoax and falls in line with today’s generally accepted identification of the perpetrator. We also learn how the museum has evolved with changing ideas about its function, especially since the last Conservative government decided that it needed to be self-supporting.
Visitors to the venerable building in South Kensington will probably get more from Fortey’s lively, learned portrait than from any official guidebook.