In a corner of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, a disembodied voice floats out from behind a crammed bookshelf. ‘Hang on… I’ll be with you in a minute… I’m just counting scales.’ A few minutes later, a tall wiry man emerges, pushing back his wayward brown hair, apologizing and explaining that he is indulging in a bit of sea bream taxidermy. The exact number of scales is key, but he keeps loosing count.
James Maclaine, 40, has been curating the museum’s vast fish collection since 1998. His office sits behind a lab cluttered with tall glass jars of yellowing specimens pickled for perpetuity in formalin and alcohol – just a tiny selection from the 27 kilometres of shelves that fill the Spirit building.
His love of fish started early: ‘As soon as I could walk, I was down by the river bothering minnows with a net,’ says Maclaine, waving his hands with the expressiveness of a Quentin Blake illustration. ‘Deep-sea stuff’ and anglerfish especially fuel his interest and the collections are still revealing secrets from the great explorers: Charles Darwin, Captain Scott and James’s favourite, Mungo Park (the first Westerner to see the Niger River), all sent in fish from their expeditions. While Scott was trudging to his doom, his ship, the Terra Nova, was out collecting fish and plant fossils – some of which can be seen in the museum’s current Scott exhibition.
‘People go on about David Attenborough and fluffy animals and everything’, says Maclain.‘But behind the scenes, there is a lot of dealing with death and funny smells.’ A day’s work can involve answering fishy queries from researchers all over the world, stranded dead porpoises (‘a haunting smell’), getting the occasional colossal squid into preservative as quickly as possible (‘the last one stank like a bus-station toilet’) or re-examining 200-year-oldspecimens preserved purely in alcohol (‘they had a lovely Christmas puddingy smell’) . The only sight that really fazed Maclaine was discovering several metres of tapeworm in the belly of a sunfish the day after a big Christmas party. ‘I had to look at the sky while that was going on. That was just a bit much.’
As he gets up to return to scale-counting, he spots some X-rays and is visibly excited. Two ghostly moray eels swim across the grey film. ‘See, these eels have two sets of jaws, like in “Alien”,’ he says. ‘I still learn something new about fish every day. Zoe Kamen