New Delhi, India
September 25, 2011
The National Museum of Natural History is housed in a building which is also primarily known for the large FICCI Auditorium, one of Delhi’s most popular venues for seminars and conferences, especially for government and public sector related meets. When we arrive at the building, a seminar seems to be in progress, and the place is swarming with delegates. We are directed to the first floor, beyond which, across galleries on the second, third and fourth floors, stretches the museum. Outside, on the landing beside the staircase, is a life-size stuffed Asian one-horned rhinoceros. The little placard next to it tells us that this was the hide of a rhino named Mohan which died at the Delhi Zoo. We write our names in a visitors’ register outside the museum, and step in.
The very first room is dark, the only light coming from little display cases with amateurish depictions of space, celestial bodies, cells and primitive (very primitive) life, all of them backlit and accompanied by neon lettering on black panels. This is all about how life first arose on Earth: the soup in which amino acids first formed, and how cells developed.
The next gallery takes a sudden leap forward, and we’re talking plants. The types of plants—from basic microscopic stuff to massive trees—what they look like, how they’re classified, the process they use (photosynthesis, reproduction, pollination and so on, the uses of plants, and (this is what I find the most interesting) the relationships between plants, between plants and animals, etc—symbiosis, parasitism, etc. All of this is depicted in the most unimaginative ways: diagrams, three-dimensional dioramas and models (none of which are interactive, by the way), and panels of text, in both Hindi and English. Two buttons near the door of each room, according to a sign, can be pressed for commentary in Hindi and English, but in the one room where we try it, it doesn’t work.
The animal life gallery is similar. Classifications, camouflage, uses of animals, endangered species, extinct species, relationships between animals (including food chains, food webs and food pyramids), and cycles such as the nitrogen cycle. There are life-size models of everything from a yak to a snow leopard and everything in between. There are two-dimensional depictions of different ecologies: desert, mountain, tropical rainforest, etc. There are some very raggedy furs and bits of leather in a display case that tries to focus on the importance of preserving wildlife.
The gallery on the fourth floor, we learn, is closed for renovations right now. Everything else takes us less than an hour. Not that the museum isn’t informative; it is. I re-learn a lot of stuff I’d learnt (and been fascinated by) way back in school. I discover facts I’d not known—for instance, that ten times more photosynthesis takes place in the oceans than happens on land.
The problem is that everything’s so unimaginative, and there’s such an obvious lack of creativity in the composition of the museum. That too might have been forgivable if it hadn’t been for the neglect that taints the entire display. The animal models are moth-eaten; the dried plants that form some of the displays have cobwebs, and just about everything is dusty and decrepit and falling to bits. Everything looks like it was made back in the 70’s, and hasn’t been even dusted ever since.
Not a place we’re going to be visiting in the near future.
From journal Delhi: Some Museums, Some Memorials