A massive fire gutted the National Museum of Natural History in Delhi on Tuesday, destroying thousands of precious specimens and eliciting howls of outrage around the country. But a visit to the museum in early March had revealed its distressing state of disrepair. There was an air of foreboding in the 38-year-old institution that sometimes comes with dereliction.

The inner stairway used by visitors to move between sections of the museum was littered with rusted beams, debris and broken glass. Descriptions of the exhibits had begun to fade and most audio-video kiosks did not work. The decades-old exhibits carried an odour of decay.

The inner stairway used by visitors. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
The inner stairway used by visitors. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary

Despite that degeneration, though, it was fascinating to stroll through the museum.

It had a 160-million-old fossil bone of the Indian Sauropod Dinosaur, Barapasaurus togorei, which was found from the Kota Region of Pranhita-Godaveri valley in the Deccan peninsula. The specimen was on loan from the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata.

A 160-million-old fossil bone of the Indian Sauropod Dinosaur, Barapasaurus togorei. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
A 160-million-old fossil bone of the Indian Sauropod Dinosaur, Barapasaurus togorei. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary

There were about 1,000 specimens of flora, fauna and conserved artefacts displayed in around 200 exhibits. In the first gallery you could follow the evolutionary sequence and evidences to see how life evolved on this small planet.

An exhibit of small mammals. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
An exhibit of small mammals. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary

On Tuesday, it was unclear how many of the artefacts had survived, if at all. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, which established the museum, said the loss is being assessed. “There were thousands of specimens which have been destroyed,” said Minister Prakash Javadekar. “This building was rented out to the Ministry by FICCI so we had limitations. We will try to recover what we can.”

News reports say the building was under renovation. Furthermore, there were plans to move the museum’s collection to a state-of-the-art facility after a parliamentary panel criticised the museum’s “pathetic functioning”. Last year, the Environment Ministry had even invited bids for the construction of a new museum complex, and 6.5 acres had been earmarked for it at Bhairon Marg, behind the Purana Kila. The exhibits were supposed to be shifted to their new abode.

That might be too late now.

A visitor looking at an exhibit on evolution. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
A visitor looking at an exhibit on evolution. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
The great Indian rhinoceros, the emblem of the museum against the reflection of a portrait of KK Birla, after whom the FICCI auditorium is named. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
The great Indian rhinoceros, the emblem of the museum against the reflection of a portrait of KK Birla, after whom the FICCI auditorium is named. Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary
Credit: Apoorv Tiwary