Roy Strong once quipped that to be successful, an exhibition needs two out of sex, death and jewels. That formula might work at the V&A, but for the Natural History Museum across the road, the three essential ingredients seem to be dinosaurs, dinosaurs and dinosaurs: even a dazzling show on diamonds was forced to close early after a police tip-off that criminals were planning to target it. In his latest book, Richard Fortey makes trebly sure of his own blockbuster success by putting on display the sexual foibles of Museum curators, the dead specimens normally preserved in storage, and priceless minerals such as the cursed amethyst that supposedly brings misfortune to all who own it. Dismissing with scorn the dinosaur robots that attract the crowds but say little about scientific research, Fortey raises to celebrity status some less glamorous contenders, including snails, fungi and the patient human enthusiasts who are gradually deciphering the clues these overlooked creatures contain. ‘Historical reality’, he rightly insists, cannot be ‘plucked from the Cretaceous by a time machine’. Instead, it ‘is continuously remade, as ideas evolve and change’.
Sounding like a kindly if somewhat grumpy uncle with a penchant for naughty stories, Fortey takes his readers on several discursive tours, wandering not only through the hidden corridors and basements of the Museum, but also among his scientific predecessors and the experiences stashed away inside his own brain. This