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This first-rate book is at once an admirably succinct history of natural history and a fine exposition on the importance of London's Natural History Museum and its 'biodiversity treasurehouses' - the glorious collections of plants, animals, rocks and minerals housed in Alfred Waterhouse's magnificent 'True Temple of Nature' in South Kensington.
Peppering her text with historical anecdotes, McGirr takes us briskly from Aristotle and Hippocrates to Linnaeus, Banks, Owen, Lyell, Darwin and Wallace, then on to the activities of present day researchers at the NHM (including absorbing accounts of Chris Stringer's work on Neanderthals and Crispin Little's studies of hydrothermal vent fauna). There is also an excellent chapter on collectors and collecting - from Mary Anning, Mary Kingsley and Lionel Rothschild to modern devices and techniques for current and future fieldwork, such as the Peter Hammond flight intercept trap.
Throughout the book there are personal perspectives on the Natural History Museum, penned by a diverse collection of celebrities (from Janet Street-Porter and Loyd Grossman to Richard Dawkins and Peter Melchett).