Thursday, July 01, 2010

Behind the scenes at the museum

I mentioned that I've been reading Richard Fortey's book on the Natural History Museum of London. I can't resist taking note of the author's photograph on the back jacket of my paperback copy. Click to enlarge.

Loose tie. Collar askew. Glasses dangling haphazardly. A slightly goofy smile. Surely Mr. Fortey is trying to evoke the image of a dusty boffin, squirreled away in some cluttered office in that huge Victorian pile on the Cromwell Road picking through trays of trilobite fossils. I'll bet he said to the photographer, "Hang on just a sec while I rumple myself up."

Certainly, his book is chuck full of stories of eccentric scholars who spend their lives in the bowels of the museum studying some curious corner of creation, the dung beetles, say, or fruit bats. Do naturalists become eccentrics, or do eccentrics become naturalists? Either way, the English seem to have a gift for eccentricity and donnish nature study.

The new Darwin Centre at the museum allows visitors to look in upon the scientists at work, disheveled tweeds and all, as if they were exotic animals on display. And now that I think about it, this photograph of Fortey makes him look rather like a meerkat, say, one of those adorable creatures across town at the Regent's Park Zoo.

Fortey tells us of museum naturalists who keep coming into work long after they retire, living off their pension checks until they expire among their tottering piles of books, papers, and specimens. What possesses these men and women to potter away all their lives on their esoteric specialty? Let Fortey explain:
The real joy of discovery is to see the exuberance of life, those trilobites with tridents, or those great flying reptiles as big as gliders -- organisms almost as exotic as the confabulations of Hieronymus Bosch, but thriving here on Earth long ago. To know about the wonderful excursions that life has taken is to be enriched, to be made aware of the fecundity of our small planet. This is what motivates paleontologists to tap away for weeks at ungrateful rocks. This is the point of securing the booty recovered as testimony for generations of scientists to come in the drawers of the hidden museum.