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A lesson from Natural History Museum fire: How to kill our heritage

Apart from charred manuscripts, burnt down specimens of endangered birds, reptiles and mammals and fossils, the National Museum fire in Delhi left behind a story of how to kill our heritage.

columns Updated: May 02, 2016 18:39 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
National Museum of Natural History fire,FICCI fire,Indian heritage
An inside view of the National Museum of Natural History after it was destroyed in a fire.(HT Photo)

In a letter to Hindustan Times last week, a reader complained about the uninspiring museum scene in Delhi.

He had travelled to Washington, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, Paris and Marseille and found museums “mesmerising” in each of these cities. “One could spend the whole day... in full comfort. That’s what I miss in India. Other than some beautiful palaces, which are museums in themselves, there really is nothing else to see about our history, our great people and leaders... nothing else worth remembering except, may be, the National Museum on Janpath,” he wrote in the letter.

He couldn’t have made his point at a more appropriate time. Just three days later, Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History (NMHM) was lost to a late-night blaze.

Apart from charred manuscripts, burnt down specimens of endangered birds, reptiles and mammals and fossils dating back to as far as 160 million years, the museum left behind a story of how to kill our heritage.

After six years of curation, the museum opened in 1978. Most old-timers remember the building for its giant dinosaur figure in its front lawn. Visible from a distance, it was a city landmark. The museum was on the must-do list of most children during their summer vacation. But last Tuesday when the building caught fire, one was surprised to realise how little Delhi residents remembered of this city icon.

Not without reason. A parliamentary panel report in 2012 stated that it was short of mockery to call it a national museum. There were no audio-visual aids or school loan kits at the museum. The exhibits remained the same for decades and current environmental concerns such as global warming, deforestation, pollution control found no reflection is any of the displays.

The ministry of environment that ran the museum defended the lack of upgrade, saying the museum was soon to be shifted out of its rented premises to a sprawling building in Pragati Maidan. But now, with nearly 70% of the exhibits lost to the fire, one wonders what the new set up, however plush, will inherit.

Being the national capital, Delhi gets to claim the best of art, artefacts and natural history specimens. Its own rich history makes it a repository of precious material. The National Museum displays artefacts from 5,000 years of history, the Gallery of Modern Art has the best collection of paintings in India, the National Rail Museum displays 90 vintage locomotives and wagons and Shankar’s International Museum has a collection of 6,500 dolls from 85 countries. Purana Qila has a museum right on the excavation site.

The Delhi government website lists out 22 government-run museums in the city. Many of these museums routinely undergo renovations, but for a few exceptions, most visitors still find the places run down and uninspiring. Most city museums have fallen off the tourist map. Their exhibitions are rarely a talking point even among Delhites.

Across the world, many vibrant cities are proud of their museums. It is not merely about timely restoration of displays but about connecting with people. At the British Museum, the sleepovers give children the chance to spend a night exploring some galleries after dark, and take part in activities such as storytelling, music and dance workshops, re-enactments and craft activities.

The American Museum of Natural history offers the same experience for adults. The overnight adventure includes a champagne reception and up-close experience with the African mammals, the 65-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex and chance to curl up under the 94-foot blue whale.

At London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest on art and design, a retrospective of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen last year was the most visited exhibition ever. For the final two weekends, the museum opened through the night for the first time in its history to accommodate visitors, the Guardian reported.

These museums are becoming increasingly aware that they need the best of ideas to draw visitors. In India, the management of museums is still a ‘sarkari’ domain. The 2012 parliamentary report had recommended that the government set up a panel of museologists, environmentalists and educationists to revisit the concept of curating. It may be too late for the NMHM. The others could use that thought.

First Published: May 02, 2016 08:44 IST