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A door into life


The Natural History Museum and ice skaters on the museum's skating rink.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson writes -

Here and there in the Natural History Museum in London, built into recesses along the underlit corrdors or standing between glass cases of minerals and ostrich eggs and a centruy or so of other productive clutter, are secret doors - at least secret in the sense that there is nothing about them to attract the visitor's notice. Occasionally you might see someone with the distracted manner and interestingly wilful hair that mark the scholar emerge from one of the doors and hasten down a corridor, probably to disappear through another door a little further on, but this is a relatively rare event. For the most part the doors stay shut, giving no hint that beyond them exists another - a parallel - Natural History Museum as vast as, and in many ways more wonderful than, the one the public knows and adores.

The Natural History Museum contains some seventy million objects from every realm of life and every corner of the planet, with another hundred thousand or so added to the collection each year, but it is really only behind the scenes that you get a sense of what a treasure house this is. In cupboards and cabinets and long rooms full of close-packed shelves are kept tens of thousands of pickled animals in bottles, millions of insects pinned to squares of card, drawers of shiny molluscs, bones of dinosaurs, skulls of early humans, endless folders of neatly pressed plants. . .

. . .Many people would love to get their hands on these things. A few actually have. . .a charming old regular in the molluscs department - 'quite a distinguished gentleman', I was told - was caught inserting valued sea shells into the hollow legs of his Zimmer frame. . .

There are billions of species - and not just microbial types - that have yet to be discovered. Bryson reports that "In 1995 a team of French and British scientists in Tibet, who were lost in a snowstorm in a remote valley, came across a breed of horse, called the Riwoche, that had previously been known only from prehistoric cave drawings."

There are only 10,000 taxonomists in the world, a number of them working at the Natural History Museum, behind those "secret" doors or out in the field, trying to log the new discoveries.

Visiting the Natural History Museum and its new Darwin Centre is free of charge. (There is a charge for temporary exhibits.)

Whenever we open Bryson's book, we find another fascinating story -

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