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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum
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on 3 November 2009
This latest book by Richard Fortey is largely about the Natural History Museum, the venerable building in London where he has worked since the 1970s. Unlike his earlier books it's rather unfocused - many of the chapters ramble from one subject to the next with absolutely no links, almost as if the author has just jotted down his thoughts randomly, moving from beetles to disease to taxonomy within the space of a few pages. There are also some errors which a good editor should have picked up on, for instance the misuse of the word "an" in "an historical" and "an heroic" throughout the book, and basic errors such as incorrect reference to acronyms (SNC and VMS are NOT acronyms). Where the book works best is in its gossipy asides on the odd characters and that have inhabited the museum over the years and anecdotes regarding their strange behaviour. Fortey certainly makes it sound like an interesting place to work!

This is by no means Fortey's best work, but it's diverting enough to be worth a look.
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VINE VOICEon 11 January 2009
Richard Fortey is brave to include the word "Dry" in the title of this scientific ramble, since "dry" is exactly what a prospective reader could think when confronted with a book about the inner workings of a museum. However, enough gossipy anecdotes are included in with the facts and figures to ensure that a light tone is sustained throughout this long and affectionate look at a major British institution.

The author's love of his subject, London's famous Natural History Museum, shines through this book, and it is no surprise when he informs us that he, like many other scientists in the museum who he has described in this book, after his retirement continues to work there "for nothing."

This may seem like a rather chaotic, even random, book; Fortey makes this point himself saying "It does not pretend to be a comprehensive account...It is just my own collection-projects that caught my eye..."(p317.) However, it is saved from being merely a description of unconnected work and personalities of the Museum by the fact that the author does have a strong, personal message to impart.

Fortey argues forcefully, particularly in the last chapter, for the importance of taxonomy, the naming of names, the identification of species as part of a natural history museum's remit. He contrasts "This fundamental if...unglamorous science" with more easily funded areas of research, more "hypothesis testing" than pure investigations into the organisms themselves. This is an area of conflict the general reader is unlikely to be even remotely aware of, but Fortey explains the clash and argues very clearly for pure taxonomy to be the basis of future funded work.

Reading this book, the reader gets the impression that for our fossil loving author, and many of the eccentric colleagues he describes, their work is a deeply held vocation. It is easy to admire and even envy them, working in such a fantastic and magical place.
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on 11 August 2012
Oh, how I love Richard Fortey... his books, his all-too-rare TV appearances, his love of obscure marine arthropods...

Fortey's 'biography' of the Natural History Museum is everything that my crushingly disappointing first visit to the NHM was not. On my second ever visit to London, I dragged myself to Kensington, jetlagged and with a raging flu, yet hoping to see just a fraction of the collection that I had dreamt of since childhood. What did I find? A kiddy playground of flashing lights, endless interactive 'multimedia' exhibits involving pushing buttons and buzzing noises, and lots of embedded screens showing films of everything BUT the collection. It was one of the biggest letdowns of my life. If there was any science going on, I certainly didn't see it. It felt more like a suburban amusement park.

Perhaps I am being unkind and grumpy, or perhaps I have gone mad and in my flu-ridden state did not see the brilliant exhibits hidden just 'round the corner. But my overwhelming impression was one of disappointment... especially knowing what objects would have been lurking behind the public galleries.

Of course the kiddies need their entertainment, and museums are a great way of engaging them with science early on. But a little bit of content for those of us over the age of 12 would not have gone astray. I can understand a lesser institution resorting to bells and whistles and things that go 'wheee' to get the punters in... but Britain's Natural History Museum??

Anyway, back to Dr Fortey's wonderful book... I can't help but wonder if some of his colleagues are still talking to him after the publication of 'Dry Store Room No. 1'! Fortey's delightfully gossipy stories about the eccentrics and obsessives he worked with over the course of his long career are just as entertaining as the history of the collection itself. I admit to finding some bits hard going (I believe it was the molluscs), but it is nevertheless a wonderful book that I have re-read more than once.

It's a tad depressing to realise that the era of universities and museums as havens for an assortment of misfits and weirdos is long over, and that such institutions are now just as rife with 'performance targets', 'outcomes' and 'benchmarking' as any other workplace. Nonetheless I am grateful to Dr Fortey for providing us with such a personal insight into the Museum's history. Long may he, and it, reign.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 September 2008
This more than just a description of a museum. This is also a journey into the history of the natural sciences and a part biography as well. Well illustarted, Richard Fortey describes an institution that is trying hard (and succeeding if the new Darwin Centre is any guide)to move with the times, make science accesible to the public, yet has more going on behind the scenes than we could ever give credit.

Anyone who lives in or visits London should pay more than one visit to this marvelous place, and thanks to this book they will be well briefed as to what goes and has gone on there.
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on 3 May 2011
This is a great book for anybody that has an interest in Natural History. As a big fan of the Natural History museum I was interested in learning more about what goes on behind the scenes and this has proved to be the perfect book for my quest! Richard Fortey explored the back rooms of the museum when he was working there and admits that even over that time he realises that there is still so much that he hasn't yet seen. Obviously this is a world that will remain closed off for the rest of us but I found it so fascinating to think about all these different rooms filled with weird and wonderful relics, fossils and collections. Fortey shares his knowledge throughout the book, complemented by his quirky sense of humour. He gives detailed descriptions of the different rooms filled with drawers upon drawers containing collections of insects and birds to the bizarre sounding Spirit Rooms which previously held the jars of preserved animals and bits and pieces. Fortey describes eccentric characters that he met during his time there, including some very funny little stories about his co-workers and their activities!
There are some wonderful pictures of some of the exhibits and collections.
Overall a brilliant read, lots of great information. Taxonomy (the naming of names) is explained very well, and was something that I was curious about after reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. Have a read, you won't disappointed.
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on 1 August 2009
The title refers to an obscure, hidden room in the non-public section of the London Natural History Museum, which houses all the forgotten, but fascinating animal artifacts that once played a purpose in highlighting some scientific truth to the public or researchers of the museum. The idea is that this book is a similar room for Forty as he recalls the various curious human creatures that inhabit this famous building.

The style of the book reflects this metaphor - at times being almost too exuberant, but at least interesting and imaginative, but at other times, especially when describing the science, becomes somewhat dry and jargon-laden. It also meanders around, somewhat at random.

The book has opening and closing chapters which generally talk about the place and its works, with specific chapters in the middle covering the various departments of the Natural History Museum - animals, plants, minerals, etc. Fortey meanders between revealing elements of the research behind the secret, scientist-based half of the Natural History Museum, and describing its history, both in terms of the building and its originators, and various colourful workers that passed through its doors. He conveys very well the passion, dedication and eccentricities that are consistent themes for everyone who works tirelessly on cataloguing the organic world. The people do come alive, with Fortey's close descriptions of their appearance and characters, even if at times his words seem a little overly dramatic and the act therefore a little desperate to make everyone appear interesting.

His description of the science is less successful, and he seems defensive as to the importance of the work of the place, and nostalgic for a bygone era when there may well have been more scientific freedom, money and influence, but not necessarily nearly as high quality of science. Rather than demonstrate by clear, exciting examples why this work really is important, Fortey unfortunately conveys some of the tedium of the field, and I did find myself struggling through this book somewhat, and feeling that it was too long (even though the book isn't particularly lengthy). I also feel that Fortey missed some tricks with the structure. It just felt that he didn't really plan too much how he would structure the book, and just wing it. There were times when I felt he was trying to write two books simultaneously - one about the science of the place, and the the other of its history and people. And the seams between these two worlds showed constantly and were rather ugly. I also wish that the real star of the show, the building itself, could have been given a more prominent role, and been the main topic to knit together everything else. The building does sound fascinating, rambling and vast, but maps really should have been provided, and would have made the place come alive for me, rather than just hear in text about yet another corridor or another turret and have no clue where such places were, and having them all blend together frustratingly in my mind.

I have loved the Natural History Museum since childhood, and was so excited when this book arrived, but although I finished the book (eventually) because of the anecdotes and colourful people described in it, as well as a small subset of the scientific passages, I was hoping for so much more.
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on 1 October 2017
Arrived on time, good clean copy; I look forward to reading it.
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on 11 May 2012
I reread this just now and found it almost as much fun as it was the first time. It is very entertaining and you might learn quite a bit. Whoever would have thought scientists were so extraordinary?
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on 8 August 2009
Those who have visited South Kensington in London will not have failed to miss the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road. This immense, cathedral-like structure is both a very fine museum and a centre of research into taxonomy, palaeobiology, mineralogy and related areas.

Much of the museum is not open to the public, and this book introduces the laboratories; specimen preparations rooms; store rooms and much else to the reader. However, it is much more than this. The author parallels the guide book element with the natural history and science of a number of organisms described in the book. Useful information is provided on the origin of the museum, originally part of the British Museum, and how this was entwined with the development of Biology in the 19th Century, including the role of Sir Richard Owen. Also mentioned is the relationship between the government (i.e. funding) and the museum, not always smooth.

A particularly fascinating theme running through the book is the wonderfully eccentric nature of British Science and Scientists. We have the many fish men, lichen women, bat men, beetle people and the famous whale man (or whale pit man), Peter Purves. It may have been eccentric, stiff, regimented and under-funded but great Science was produced!

In conclusion, a great book essential for fans of the Natural History Museum.
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on 18 March 2008
Dry Store Room No.1 is a wonderful book that allows the reader an insight into the fascinating world of the Natural History Museum, London. In this book Mr Fortey tells us; not only about the exhibits, but also about the work behind them and the men and women who carried out this work. We learn about all sorts of things from the ghastly stenches of the pit where Whale carcasses are stripped of flesh to the curator who obsessively categorized everything including "string too short for further use".

The science parts can occasionally be a bit hard to understand but like another reviewer I see that as my lack of understanding not Mr Fortey's lack of clarity and besides what would life be if we didn't stretch ourselves once in a while.

I thoroughly recommend this for the sort of person who likes a behind the scenes look at life.
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