Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dry Storeroom No. 1

On one of my forays through the basement I came across a door that I had not noticed before. This was on a corridor with an air of being seldom visited on one side of which were tucked away the osteology collections--bones, dry bones, where oxen strode naked of their skin and muscles, and great bony cradles hung from the ceiling, the jawbones of whales. Here, ape and kangaroo met on equal terms in the demotic of their skeletons, with no place for the airs and graces of the flesh. Strange though these collections might seem, they were as nothing compared with what lay behind the mysterious door opposite. For this was Dry Storeroom No. 1. Neglected and apparently forgotten, this huge square room entombed the most motley collection of desiccated specimens. Fishes in cases were lined up species by species in their stuffed skins; they were presented in faded ranks like a parade that had forgotten the bunting. At one end there was a giant fish that seemed to have bee cut off mid-length, such that the posterior part of its body was apparently missing, and it had a silly little mouth out of proportion to its fat body. It was a sunfish, and its cut-off appearance was entirely natural--a faded notice attached to it proclaimed it was the "type." Elsewhere there were odd boxes, on of which contained human remains, laid out in a kind of slatted coffin. The shells of a few giant tortoises hunkered down like geological features on the floor. There were sea urchin shells, and some skins or pelts of things I couldn't identify. Most peculiar of all, on top of a glass-fronted cupboard there was a series of models of human heads. They were arranged left to right, portraying a graded array of racial stereotypes. One did not have to look at them for very long to realize that there was a kind of chain running from a Negroid caricature on one side to a rather idealized Aryan type on the other. This was a remnant of an old exhibit, heaven knows from what era, with more than a sniff of racism about it. Dry Storeroom No. 1 was a kind of miscellaneous repository, a place of institutional amnesia. It was rumoured that it was also the site of trysts, although love in the shadow of the sunfish must have been needy rather than romantic. Certainly, it was a place unlikely to be disturbed until it was dismantled. I could not suppress the thought that the storeroom was like the inside of my head, presenting a physical analogy for the jumbled lumber-room of memory. Not everything there was entirely respectable; but, even if tucked out of sight like suppressed memories, these collections could never be thrown away. This book opens a few cupboards, sifts through a few drawers. A life accumulates a collection: of people, work and preplexities. We are all our own curators.

--Richard Fortey, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum


  1. Museums in general and the National History Museum, in particular, have kept cropping up in both reading and conversations, lately.

    I love this excerpt and have slipped over to Amazon to add this to my wish list!

  2. I finished it yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. I love history of science books, especially digressive history of science books!

  3. Oh, nice. That one has been on my wishlist for a while for some reason or other, and now I know why.


The penultimate stack post

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