Dry Store Room No 1

The other book I read over Christmas was “Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum” by Richard Fortey. This is an interesting tour of some of the past and present personalities behind the Natural History Museum, London. I found it a really interesting light read.

A good motto put forward in the book is “never throw anything away”, I was thinking that has some relevance for my recent experiences of computer files.

At times I thought Fortey’s views on museums a little old-fashioned, but then the very next sentence would launch into the importance of DNA sequencing in a modern museum and I would be slightly embarrassed to have doubted him. On the whole I was convinced by his views. He is very keen on the importance of naming species in the modern world, which although I don’t entirely disagree with think may ultimately be a bit of a distraction from the most important work of describing the big picture of diversity and the processes generating it. But he would probably agree with this too (he writes that we need to name things to understand their stories), its just that he talks about naming a lot and the importance of the processes generating biodiversity much less.

In previous eras he describes how keen amateurs became world experts by collecting all the relevant taxonomic literature on a group. In the recent past however, because of the amount of publications needed, amateurs could not hope to have access to enough literature to become experts on the taxonomy of any group. Now, he suggests, the internet may be reversing this trend as much more of the relevant literature is easily available. A great argument for open access publishing.

When discussing species status and hybridisation (pg 315-316) he has a quote that I like

“Since evolution is still happening all around us it would actually be rather surprising if there were not such difficulties of definition in nature.”

A light and entertaining read, worth the effort.

“Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum” Richard Fortey
Harper Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0007209880

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