Saturday, January 12, 2008

The eloquence of the diplodocus specimen

At the Guardian, Richard Fortey on the Natural History Museum in London:
On one of my forays through the basement, I came across a door that I had not noticed before. This was in a corridor with a half-forgotten air, 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 may seem, they were as nothing compared with what lay behind the mysterious door opposite. For this was Dry Store Room No 1. Neglected and apparently forgotten, this huge square room entombed the most motley collection of desiccated specimens. Fish in cases were lined up, species by species, in their stuffed skins; they presented in faded ranks like a parade that had forgotten the bunting. At one end, there was a huge fish that seemed to have been cut-off mid-length, so 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, one 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, 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 realise that there was a kind of chain running from a Negroid caricature on one side to a rather idealised Aryan type on the other.

Dry Store Room No 1 was a kind of miscellaneous repository, a place of institutional amnesia. It was rumoured that it also was 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 store room 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. We are all our own curators.
Mmmmm, Dry Storeroom No. 1 is certainly near the top of my list of must-read books... like a young-adult fantasy novel, only all true!


  1. Wow--I was really enjoying the passage from the Guardian, and then you made it even better with the news that it's going to be a book! It's definitely on my list for the fall.