Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 25, 2009

secrets of the museum

Richard Fortey is a fine writer of books for laypeople about science, and for many years was the “trilobite man” at the Natural History Museum in London. I love museums in general, and natural history museums in particular, and Fortey’s home institution perhaps best of all (though I also have a great fondness for Oxford’s little gem, which is sort of a miniature version of the one in Kensington). So — and yes, I know how absurdly geeky this is — I was pretty pumped to learn that Fortey had written a memoir of his museum years, Dry Storeroom No. 1: the Secret Life of the Natural History Museum.

It’s a rambling and miscellaneous kind of book, which befits a book about a museum, but it’s quite informative about how the various departments of a vast museum work, and how their workings have changed over the years. I most enjoyed the stories about the strange people who have worked at the National History Museum. There was the whale specialist who did his best work while sozzled; and the biologist who, many decades ago, tried on a deep-sea diving suit while in the museum after hours, couldn't get it off, and had to stagger out onto the streets of Kensington to get help; and the meticulous researcher who, it was discovered after his death, had maintained a card index with an alphabetic record of his sexual conquests, complete with an illustrative pubic hair for each entry.

But perhaps my favorite story concerns Geoffrey Tandy, a specialist in algae and other cryptogams who, during the Second World War, was sent to work with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park — obviously some official thought that the man’s speciality was cryptograms. One would think that an “algae man” would be of little use to the cryptanalysts at Bletchley, but it turned out that Tandy had invaluable skills. When encoded notebooks were recovered from sunken German U-boats, they were soaked through, and everyone thought that they were ruined and useless. But Tandy, deeply experienced in the preservation of marine algae, knew just how to salvage the notebooks and render them decipherable. And thus Western civilization was saved.

2 comments:

  • John Johansson said...

    Some of my favorite sections of Bill Bryson's "A Short History Of Nearly Everything" are his narratives of scientists and researchers who inhabit the stacks and back hallways of institutes like the Natural History Museum: people who happily spend a lifetime exploring a particular species of lichen or trilobite. As Bryson notes, there are cabinets full of discoveries from 18th and 19th century expeditions still waiting to be catalogued at many institutions around the world. Who knows what waits to be found?

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Interestingly, Fortey mentions that he spent some time showing Bryson around the museum when Bryson was working on that book.

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