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.

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.

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.

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.