Saturday, November 22, 2008

Natural History

A moderate science geek, I love to go visiting natural history and science museums when I travel down South. From the towering American Museum of Natural History in New York City to the Sciencenter in Ithaca (Bill Nye the Science Guy - a Cornell alum - did the message on their answering machine), you can always find something interesting. But what goes on behind the scenes? Who puts together all those dioramas, who pins those butterflies, who polishes those gems, who assembles the bones. How do museums collect all those specimens and why?

Dry Storeroom No. 1: the secret life of the natural history museum answers those questions. Written by Richard Fortey, who was the senior paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, this book takes readers into the collections and storerooms of that museum, where the specimens conjure up images of intrepid scientific explorers going into rainforests on the trail of exotic plants, into deserts in a hunt for fossils, and into jungles searching for rare animals. Fortey also briefly touches on the politics of maintaining a first-class museum devoted to displaying the diversity and beauty of the world around us. Most of all, Fortey explains that far from being a dusty depository of bones, skins and rocks, a natural history museum is a working laboratory of scientific exploration and discovery. This fascinating book is also a backstage tour and a history of one of the premiere science museums in the world, and wonderful reading for anyone who is interested in how things operate.

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