As news of the blaze at Delhi’s National Museum for Natural History spread on Tuesday morning, Nirupama Kotru took to Twitter to express her anguish with a photograph. The black and white image shows her and fellow students on a class trip to the museum, cheerily clowning around a taxidermied tiger. It was taken in 1981.
“We were taken there by our excellent science teacher, Mr RS Bahadur, who is also in the picture,” reminisced Kotru, now Commissioner of Income Tax in the Finance Ministry. “We made many trips to the museum. I remember that at the entrance, there was a panel with the various stages of evolution. You could press a button and a panel would light up and talk to you about that age. It was such a big thing in the 1980s, especially since most of us kids had never travelled abroad.”
Over 38 years, the Natural History Museum gave similar memories to generations. The museum, set up under the aegis of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, opened its door to the public in 1978. It was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who felt the country needed a museum to depict its flora, fauna and mineral wealth for the purposes of children’s education and to promote environmental awareness among the masses.
It didn’t accomplish the second object but it did well on the first. For those who went to school in Delhi, the museum was a fixture of field trips. Everyone who visited it remembers the giant model of an Allosaurus in the museum complex, its jaws open menacingly.
It’s not clear when, and if, it will create such memories anymore. The fire, which started around 1.30 am on Tuesday on the museum’s top floor and spread quickly, gutted the building that was rented out to the Environment Ministry by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce. “There were thousands of specimens which have been destroyed,” said Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar. The cause of the blaze is unknown.
Lara Pasricha, a student, says it was the Natural History Museum that introduced her to taxidermy. “The animals in the display looked so real and I remember being terrified of some of them,” she said. “I just kept thinking the animals might move any time. My class teacher then explained what taxidermy was and I remember thinking it was such a bizarre thing to do and why not just go to the zoo instead?”
On entering the museum, the visitor was greeted by first of the three permanent exhibits, titled “Introduction to Natural History”. It told the story of evolution, depicted plants and animals in their natural habitat, among many other things. The second section, “Nature’s Network: Ecology”, dealt with the major ecosystems: the role of plants as primary producers, food chains, the relationship between plants, animals and human beings. And the third, titled “Conservation”, explained the many aspects of preservation of nature and wildlife. It included a life-size diorama of a deciduous forest, presenting contrasting pictures – that of a rich, balanced forest ecosystem and the other of denuded terrain.
Madhav Raghavan, 32, says the Allosaurus model was the highlight of his trips. “We must have visited the museum at least thrice throughout our schooling years,” said the researcher at the National Institute for Public Finance and Policy in Delhi. “I don’t remember it being a particularly thrilling experience except for the dinosaur outside.”
Many took to social media to express their disappointment.