Tuesday, June 29, 2010

7 Prince's Gate Mews

I'm reading Richard Fortey's The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum: Dry Store Room No. 1. The museum is London's, a monumental Victorian pile on the Cromwell Road. The author is former senior paleontologist at the museum, and a prolific science popularizer.

I think I've read everything Fortey has written, but I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for this behind-the-scenes look at the Natural History Museum, the "unseen galleries, locked doors, priceless specimens and hidden lives." One priceless year (1968-69) I lived with my wife and three young children (Tom not born yet) in a flat around the corner and across the street from the Natural History Museum. Even closer to hand was the Geological Museum and the Science Museum, a perfect trifecta of scientific bliss. Not to mention that other great pile, the Victoria and Albert Museum of arts and crafts, which abutted our bedroom wall. These unparalleled collections were, in effect, our front yard, backyard, attic and basement, and no young family ever had a more endlessly instructive neighborhood.

On Saturday mornings, we'd walk the kids to the Natural History Museum, where for the deposit of a big, brown English penny they were each given a folding canvas stool, a clipboard with sheets of plain white paper, and a fistful of colored pencils. Off they would go into the endless corridors and galleries to sketch duck-billed playpuses, birds of paradise, woolly mammoths, and dinosaur bones. Maureen, the oldest, as it turns out, has made a triumphant return; the last time I was in the Geological Museum, there she was in an endless video loop describing her work on ice ages and tectonic uplift.

In his introduction, Fortey writes: "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 know my own year living adjacent to three of the world's great scientific museums vastly enriched my own store of recollections and facts. I've tried to curate them faithfully, keeping what I can fresh in memory, occasionally taking others off the shelf, polishing them up and committing them to paper. I sometimes wonder if who my three oldest children are today was in some tucked-away, half-forgotten fashion shaped by the year they spent with the greatest museum complex in the world as their neighborhood playground.