Friday, September 21, 2007

Tales from the Crypt

I am now in my second week of work at the Natural History Museum. I’ve dug into my work right away, but the institutional details (email address, internet access, payroll, card key access, etc.) are lagging behind a bit. Not having email/internet access at work is proving a bit frustrating, particularly since the internet connection at our flat often drops out entirely, but I’m sure they’ll get fixed up soon - it has only been two weeks after all and people are still returning from vacations etc. Apart from the bureaucratic delays, the Museum has been very welcoming to me and the people that I have met so far have been very nice.

The plant collections here are vast and the library is remarkable; I keep encountering the most astonishing bits of history in the collections. On one of my first days here I came across a folder which contained four plant collections from the Tahitian islands: the first was a plant collected in Moorea by my friend and fellow fern enthusiast John Game, followed by two collections by Joseph Banks from the first voyage of Captain Cook, and one by Captain Cook himself from his second voyage. John's specimens are in good company.

The herbarium at the Natural History Museum, because of history and space constraints, is split into multiple parts. The seed plants are on the east side of the building, and the so-called cryptogams (ferns, mosses, algae, and the rest of their unruly friends) are on the west side of the building. This second half, containing the cryptogam collections (and myself, during work hours), is lovingly referred to as “The Crypt.” Come to think of it, since heads of departments here are called “keepers” instead of curators or directors, I actually work with a Crypt Keeper. Luckily for me, the Crypt Keeper here cackles a lot less than the one from television, makes fewer macabre puns (“He might find himself in graaaave danger, cackle cackle!”), and has never appeared in a movie with Dennis Miller to my knowledge.

Most people probably think very little about the physical aspects of the building they work in, but the building that houses the Natural History Museum is one of the best aspects of working here. It is an enormous castle with all sorts of quirky stairways and passages, with animals and plants worked into the architectural details. It feels in many ways like Hogwarts (Harry Potter’s school, in case anyone out there doesn’t know), especially since the stairways seem to move. Perhaps that’s just me getting lost. It was appropriate that J. K. Rowling gave a reading here when she recently released the last book in the series. In fact, all sorts of random parties and shindigs happen at the Museum, which have forced me to find new routes to my desk a few times. Right now, for example, London Fashion Week is happening right at the museum in two large temporary buildings. Later in the year, an ice rink gets put in outside for skating during the holidays. Too bad they couldn't combine the two and have Fashion Week On Ice - even I would go watch those runway shows.

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