“If you start odd,” Richard Fortey said, “you might grow odder.”
That is, if you work behind the scenes at a natural history museum.
At the Peabody Museum on Thursday, Fortey, the author of “Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of a Natural History Museum,” talked to an audience of about 50 professors, New Haven residents and graduate students on what it is like to work behind the scenes of a premier collecting museum — a profession that, at times, can seem to become the ultimate cult. Fortey works in the Natural History Museum in London as a merit researcher in the Department of Paleontology and served as president of the Geological Society of London in 2007, its bicentennial year. During this time, Fortey said he amassed a great collection of anecdotes and quirky factoids from his colleagues about the history of taxonomy, which he eventually compiled into “Dry Storeroom No. 1.”
The museum is “a way of telling the truth about what existed,” said Fortey, “and the museum will be there to tell us what we’ve done.” Altars to the science of taxonomy, he said these museums are “a recognition of biodiversity.”
Fortey said he wanted to provide outsiders with an insight into the strange past of natural history, filling the book with mystical descriptions and scientific processes. He described a walk into low-lit corridors lined with preserved fish skins, politically incorrect evolutionary displays, jars of preserved entrails and shelves of beetles — just some of the surprises Fortey said can be found behind the scenes at natural history museums. The air is funny-smelling, he said, referencing the overwhelming smell of formaldehyde and liquor used to preserve biodegradable artifacts. And, he said, there are always interesting people around — for example, his former co-worker Peter Pervis, who discovered that the way to age a whale is to cut off its ear and examine the layers of accumulated earwax. This process was so disgusting, Fortey said, that Pervis could only work in the whale house while intoxicated.
“[The whale house] was a place you didn’t go if you could avoid it,” Fortey said.
At natural history museums like Yale’s Peabody, life is categorized, Fortey explained. Collecting begins when a creature is snatched from its natural habitat and taken to these vast labyrinths. DNA samples are taken and the organism is then preserved either by drying it, soaking it in spirits or formaldehyde, or freezing it. At the museum, scientists peer into their microscopes and note the meticulous details of the beings, he said. If it is a new species, they name it.
The naming is where the historians have their fun, Fortey joked, citing colleagues who have bestowed scientific names in honor of Darth Vader and various members of President Bush’s cabinet.
“It was a nice blend of humor and facts,” Amelinda Webb GRD ’14, a geology student, said of the presentation.
While the talk emphasized the particular personality type required to fit in behind the scenes at natural history museums, listeners said they were pleased to have glimpsed through the window, if only for an hour.
One attendee said she was talked into going to the event by a natural history buff friend, but was pleasantly surprised by the accessible subject matter.
“You have to be very eccentric,” she said, referencing those who devote their lives to the museums, “but the speech was user-friendly.”