Museum of Natural History Fire a Chance to Secure Our National Treasures Better

The museum had been gifted to the country in 1972 by the then-PM Indira Gandhi, on India’s 25th anniversary of gaining independence.

A scan through the charred windows reveals maximum damage to have occurred in the upper two floors. Credit: PTI

A scan through the charred windows reveals maximum damage to have occurred in the upper two floors. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Until a week ago, you entered the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Delhi to be greeted with an imposing Tyrannosaurus rex, a grey, life-sized long-tailed figure made of cement, its jagged teeth arranged in what looked like a snarl. Then, there was its relative Allosaurus that lived 155-150 million years ago, and a one-horned rhino to greet you a little further. These days, the T. rex is still there but outside the charred building, in the company of the despondent NMNH director B. Venugopal and a few colleagues, seated on plastic chairs. “Investigations are in progress. Until a report is submitted to the Ministry [of Environment, Forests and Climate Change] and I have permission to talk, I cannot talk to the press about the extent of damage and loss of specimens,” Venugopal told The Wire.

In the early hours of April 26, around 1.45 am, a blazing fire turned the 38-year-old museum’s collection of fossils, stuffed animals and other exhibits to cinders, though exactly which items were reduced to ashes and which ones can be retrieved and restored remains to be known. The museum had been gifted to the country in 1972 by the then-PM Indira Gandhi, on India’s 25th anniversary of gaining independence.

The museum had housed some rare fossils, including one of a Sauropoda dinosaur that was 160 million years old. The Sauropoda were the largest land animals that walked Earth. The museum also possessed a rare cup-sponge fossil found in the Pacific Ocean and a fossilised dinosaur egg. There were life-size replicas of the big cats – the Asiatic lion, white tiger, cheetah and snow leopard, all as one would have seen them in their natural surroundings, crouching as if atop a tree or pouncing on a prey – and rare vultures –including varieties fast disappearing from India. Finally, there were birds’ eggs such as those of the ostrich and the long-billed vulture, and butterflies, reptiles and beautiful plant specimens.

A scan through the charred windows reveals maximum damage to have occurred in the upper two floors while the lower two seem relatively less burnt, and that is where the staff expect to retrieve the most from. Especially crucial is the first floor that had the fossils and stuffed-animal exhibits, including of some extinct and endangered species. This floor also contained an introduction of and brief tour through the elements of natural history, with exhibits on the universe and the Solar System, life through the ages, endangered animals, man-made crises, etc.

The second floor had “an introduction to ecology” and “bio, geo and chemical cycles”, which exhibits delineating man’s place in various ecosystems and the variety and diversity of life.

The third floor, now mostly damaged, dealt with conservation, with dramatic life-size diorama of a typical deciduous forest with depictions of both a rich, balanced forest ecosystem and of a denuded, barren terrain. Two exhibits depicted the environment-conscious Bishnoi community and India’s historic Chipko movement.

The environment ministry estimates 225 crore rupees will be needed to restore the museum. “The fire at the National Museum of Natural History is tragic. The museum is a national treasure… the loss cannot be quantified,” the union environment minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted. He also ordered a fire audit of all the natural history museums in the country.

These museums are not only repositories of information but they also serve as valuable resources in supplementing classroom teaching. “Natural history museums are national treasures,” says Neha Sinha, a wildlife scientist from the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). “And given that so many school children visited the museum, there is a huge question of how the building authorities ignored safety issues.”

Restoration of most, if not all, specimens is eventually possible. “It’s not difficult entirely to procure dinosaur fossils as India has them in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu,” Sinha explains. “Also, one can get them from other museums. And animal skins can be procured from the forest department and stuffed.” That said, it will not be easy. “[the] populations of many species have come down drastically in recent years. Others have become endangered.”

It’s rare to come upon a complete, intact fossil even at the best of times. Experts usually unearth pieces of skeletons and reconstruct the remaining parts with aids. “It is a long process; it takes years,” explains Rahul Kot, curator at the department of natural history collection at BNHS, Mumbai. The process of a fossil’s reconstruction also depends on the kind of technical expertise available and the condition of the fossil at the time of recovery, according to Kot. Then the parts are transported to the museum for reassembly.

Unlike in developed nations, India does not have dedicated laboratories for fossil reconstruction – even if individual institutions such as the Botanical Survey of India,  Zoological Survey of India and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany have some capabilities.

Making stuffed animals also takes a long time – one or two years – says Kot. After a suitable body (of a dead animal or bird) has been recovered, taxidermists take two or three weeks to clean and stuff it. Then, they need to keep the newly stuffed specimen under observation for six months to check that there are no fungal or insect attacks. “The skin has to be cleaned and dried slowly, in a shadow. Sometimes if the skin is not cleaned properly, some fungus or insect gets in, or some fat or oil oozes out,” says Kot. “Insects or fungus can do irreversible damage.” At other times, hairs and feathers begin to slowly fall off if the specimen hasn’t been handled carefully. “Then the aesthetic value of the specimen decreases.”

“Over the last decade, the museum has [developed] a run-down look and there have been fewer visitors,” says Sinha, who has been visiting it since her childhood. “Despite that, it still had an old-world charm to it – as it did not have all the electronic displays and gadgetry that modern museums do. One could touch and feel some of the specimens. And to understand and appreciate natural history, ‘touch’ is very important, be it feathers, horns [or anything else].”

Money was sanctioned for a new museum building during Jairam Ramesh’s tenure as the minister for environment, in 2009-2011, but there has been scant progress on the front. Even if the museum is restored in a more modern version after the fire, Sinha wishes it should continue to allow visitors to touch the specimens.

“Other museums need to learn from the NMNH fire,” according to Kot. Mandatory fire audits will be a first as natural history museums have a lot of inflammable material, such as hairs, dried samples and alcohol (used for preservation). BNHS, for example, has made its alcohol storage room fireproof and is now trying to procure fire-safe cabinets for its specimens. “The specimens are very fragile. Even a small fire can damage them. And this was a raging fire.”

Unlike Europe or the US, which tend to have natural history museums in almost every big city, India has few of these institutions. “And we have lost one of them. We should set a timeline for its reconstruction [and] not just allow it to take another decade again.”