India needs to build world-class natural history museums | analysis | Hindustan Times
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India needs to build world-class natural history museums

The fire in Delhi on Monday night that destroyed the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) is tragic. In my opinion, a museum that preserves millions of years of history, not of mankind, but of things beyond our imagination – the crafts of nature -- is a national heritage.

analysis Updated: Apr 27, 2016 08:58 IST
A view of the National Museum of Natural History that was destroyed after a massive fire broke out early on Tuesday in New Delhi.
A view of the National Museum of Natural History that was destroyed after a massive fire broke out early on Tuesday in New Delhi.(PTI Photo)

The fire in Delhi on Monday night that destroyed the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) is tragic. In my opinion, a museum that preserves millions of years of history, not of mankind, but of things beyond our imagination – the crafts of nature -- is a national heritage.

We have lost a national heritage. We cannot bring back what is lost, but are we ready to learn from what happened? We should learn collectively not only what went wrong but also how we should set up another museum that meets world standards.

Museums are centers of research, education and public outreach. They are an important link between the past and the present. Most often, natural history museums get categorised as places for public entertainment but only a few see them as institutions of scientific importance that play a vital role in our understanding of a country’s natural heritage.

Read: Fire at Delhi’s Natural History Museum: What may have been lost

The biological specimens housed in museums across the globe document the occurrence of individual organisms in space and time. Altogether, they form a vast and growing permanent historical record, which scientists examine and re-examine in order to eventually improve our understanding of the natural world.

The National Museum of Natural History at New Delhi was set up to promote environmental awareness. Museum collections included amphibian and reptile specimens, butterfly specimens and some mounted specimens.

Fortunately, some of the collections were recently transferred to regional museums. This museum established an important pioneering post-independence scientific collaboration with the Field Museum Chicago (USA) for research on Indian amphibians, and aimed to undertake research.

Read: Javadekar orders fire audit of all museums post Delhi museum blaze

However, the general state of natural history museums shows India lacks truly modern and well-maintained museums of natural history in terms of curation, infrastructure or display for scientific and public education.

We do not aspire to make our museums as major centers for cutting-edge scientific research. We lack the will to channelise our resources towards preserving it.

As a natural history researcher, I have a deep desire to see our national heritage, including important ‘type’ specimens of India’s vast biodiversity, preserved and showcased under the best of conditions. We need to build natural history museums that equal or rival the best in the world.