Inside the Natural History Museum

STEVE Parker is an alchemist. He pulls apart scientific notions, polishes them with well-chosen words, and re-packages them in a way we can understand.

His latest offering complements the recent six-part BBC TV series that looked behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum in London. There’s more going on in South Kensington than meets the eye. The book Museum of Life gives a flavour as vaults are opened and the familiar public areas are explored. It also explains why the ever-growing collections are a valuable resource.

The museum’s horizons extend well beyond SW7. The hardback follows scientists on their quest to conserve and catalogue the natural world and help solve global problems in agriculture, medicine and forensic science. Botanists hunt for the original British bluebell in Spain, while other specialists fight disease in Uganda.

Readers discover how the growth of insects can help solve crimes, what the world looked like in the dinosaur era, and how – believe it or not – shark experts help Olympic swimmers go faster.

There are some light touches: such as tips on how to clean a 100-year-old, 26-metre-long, model of a dinosaur!

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The project was something of a homecoming for the author, who worked at the Natural History Museum many moons ago. After university – a first-class honours degree in zoology at Bangor – he was employed at Cromwell Road for four or five years. Warrington-born Steve, who since childhood had been gripped by nature, worked on exhibitions, helping decide how best to display and light specimens taken out of storage. Explanatory labels, maps and detailed descriptions would also be put together.

The first sizeable piece of writing he did was for the museum. A souvenir booklet about an exhibition on the human body, it came about largely by chance. “The person in the publications department who normally wrote them was away for three months and so they asked the team if anyone wanted to have a go at writing this booklet. I thought that sounded quite interesting, had a go, and the publications manager said ‘This is quite good writing; we’ll bear you in mind for other jobs.’”

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Life at the museum was good fun, but when a recession struck he seized the chance of voluntary redundancy and decided to give it a go as a writer. A spell on a weekly doctors’ magazine, based in Soho, taught him how to write quickly and under pressure; the downside was the travelling that took him around Britain. It all got a bit much, especially as he and wife Jane had a young family.

So, in the late 1980s, he went freelance. “And that gave us the freedom to live where we wanted, really, so we came up here.”

Home had been Surrey; but their village was near the newish M25 and local roads quickly grew busier, with drivers using them to cut through. The search for peace and quiet led them to north Suffolk, near Eye. They had friends there, had been to stay several times, and liked the area.

In the early days Steve had to go to London for meetings at least once a week and it was easy to take the train from Stowmarket or Diss. Now, thanks to technological advances, such as the ability to ping computer files of prototype book pages between designers, writers, photographers, editors and other members of a publishing team, he travels to the capital only once every two or three weeks.

Touchwood, he’s never been without commissions. Steve also does quite a bit of consultancy work nowadays, advising and checking, but about two thirds of his time is still devoted to pure writing. On average, he’ll work on 10 books a year. He’ll have an input when ideas are being discussed, and will later produce the succinct text to complement illustrations and graphics.

The knack is having sound scientific knowledge and being able to present that to laymen in understandable bite-size chunks of information that don’t look like daunting science. He smiles. “Trying to simplify quantum theory for 12-year-olds is quite tricky . . .”

Steve spent several years in editing roles at Dorling Kindersley before becoming a freelance writer, learning the ins and outs of book publishing. DK’s famous approach was heavily led by visuals and design, and Steve was involved in the much-acclaimed Eyewitness series. “Peter Kindersley [the co-founder] had this vision. He said the Eyewitness books should be ‘A museum at your elbow.’”

Some of the small children’s books he works on might take just a week of his time. Others take a lot longer. Generally, he has to tailor his words to fit the space left for them, writing into design software such as QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign.

“The discipline comes in filling that panel. I enjoy it all. I like fashioning a good paragraph. The research is good fun, too, and 20 or 30 days a year I go into schools, if they have a book week or a science festival. It’s great to keep in touch with kids and what teaching staff think of the science curriculum.

“Teachers often sidle up to me and ask ‘How did you get into publishing?’, because they hope to write something. I tell them it’s not as glamorous as it seems! It’s a bit solitary, but I’ve got used to it. You have to be happy with your own company. It wouldn’t suit someone who likes to chat all day.”

He’d kept in touch with some folk at the Natural History Museum and was delighted when the book commission was offered to him. Was it daunting trying to decide what to include from the huge amount of potential information?

“Well, we were following the BBC, really, so we needed to cover roughly what they were putting in their programmes. We had a rough contents list.

“As the BBC finished making their little clips – stories of two or three minutes, like a scientist digging up a fossil in South Africa or someone repairing a shell in the museum – they would send it to us. So we had the rough script of what the presenters were saying, and the thread of the story.”

There was still plenty of work to be done, mind.

“What people might speak on TV, well, there’s at least 10 times more words in a book, I should think – probably 20 times more – so you need a lot more information and have to do a lot more background research to amplify and get more depth. It might be a page and a half or two pages in the book, but on screen they might speak only 300 words!”

Steve went to the museum several times while working on the project.

“The building is amazing. It’s very imposing and makes people feel small, which was the original idea. The main hall is supposed to be like a cathedral. You come in and the main stairs facing you are almost like a pulpit.

“It’s quite overpowering for little kids, sometimes. When I used to work there you’d be walking along the main hall, especially, and you’d be bumping into children who were just wandering along, looking up, because the ceiling is so high.”

He hopes his book will open people’s eyes to the depth of activity at South Kensington. “It’s not just full of dinosaur skeletons. There’s a lot more going on. It’s called Museum of Life – although everything in the museum is dead, pretty much! – and it’s very much involved in the living world and conservation.”

As well as continuing to write factual books this year, Steve is allowing himself time to fulfil a long-held dream: tackling his first made-up story.

“I’ve an idea I’ve been trailing in schools I’ve visited. It’s basically a story about animals. I try it out and see how the kids respond, and see how a particular animal – a giraffe or a penguin, for instance – would suit a particular character.

“It’s time to do a bit of fiction. It’s a turning point, I hope; but it will take a year and I’ve got no idea if I can do it, even!”

n Museum of Life is published by the Natural History Museum at �20. ISBN 978 0 565 09260 3.

Information overload a headache

STEVE Parker isn’t one of those people who wrings his hands in despair at the state of science-teaching in our schools and scientific knowledge among the population at large. In fact, he feels we’re doing OK. “I think it’s got a lot better in the last few years. There are more programmes on TV – Bang Goes the Theory and that sort of thing – making it fun and lively, and aiming at youngsters.”

One of the genuine headaches, he says, is the abundance of information at our fingertips in the 21st Century. The trick is being able to sort the useful and trustworthy from the rubbishy and dubious. “More and more we are asked to talk about [in schools] the skills of research and discrimination – finding what’s important. A lot of kids don’t read something thoroughly – they cut and paste – and then they don’t really understand. They can look up any fact on the internet instantly, but whether that fact is relevant or important to what they’re doing is the tricky bit.”

Cast an eye, for instance, over some websites about dinosaurs, put together by enthusiastic amateurs. You’ll often find incorrect information.

“I sometimes say in schools that in a survey 17% of science websites were found to have serious errors. We carry on for a bit, and then I say ‘And of course some of these websites have errors. Can you remember how many?’ And they say ‘Yes! Seventeen per cent!’

“I have to say to them ‘Actually, I’ve just made that up. I’ve no idea if it’s true or not. But because I’m in authority, and said to be in a position of knowledge, you’ve believed me. You must always cross-check with someone else.’ It’s a little lesson . . . though it really annoys them!”

• One of his favourite book projects was Inside the Whale and Other Animals, “which involved ‘taking apart’ animals to see how they worked – a bit like you do with machines. They were unusual animals: starfish, octopus etc. I really enjoyed the research, being a biologist at heart: finding out about the inner structure of the snail and the scorpion.”

• Last year Steve worked with Desmond Morris on a book called Planet Ape, which spotlighted the diversity of the ape world. “He’s in his 80s; an excellent chap to work with and a real pro. His main interest is actually surrealist paintings! In his office – well, it’s a suite of offices about as big as the ground-floor of this house! – a couple of rooms are just full of paintings. He does his own, too.”

• Steve, whose father was a British Airways pilot, spent much of his childhood in Surrey. One of his sons, Alan, has caught the bug and is a pilot with easyJet. Martin, his other son, studied aquatic biology at the University of Essex and is currently doing voluntary work on a game reserve in South Africa linked to Colchester Zoo.

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