Delhi: Some Museums, Some Memorials

Besides the art and craft museums, and the museums devoted to archaeology and cultural history, Delhi has some museums that are different. Museums devoted to science, for instance. Or museums devoted to some of India's more illustrious personalities.

A Good Glimpse at India’s First Prime Minister

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 25, 2011

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in India, at least, there is a tendency—especially among governmental or semi-governmental organisations—to treat the ‘fathers of the nation’ (typically politicians connected with the Indian freedom movement) as if they were demi-gods. To ask uncomfortable questions about Gandhi’s sexuality (as has been done in a couple of recent books), for example, is to invite a ban.

I was, therefore, wary of visiting the Jawahar Lal Nehru Museum. Jawahar Lal Nehru was a critical figure in the Indian movement for independence and became independent India’s first Prime Minister in 1947. A charismatic man, though not as revered s Gandhi is; but still. I expected this museum to be a one-sided tribute to him.

Teen Murti Bhawan (literally, ‘Three Statues House’) is named for the three bronze statues that stand in the middle of the traffic circle outside, commemorating the men of various Indian cavalry regiments who fought and died in Sinai and Palestine during World War I. The house—a large mansion, actually—was designed by R T Russell in the 1930s to be the residence of the Commander-in-Chief. After India’s independence, it became the home of Nehru. Today, it houses the museum and a library (the latter reportedly good—my sister, a historian, has done a lot of fruitful research here).

We visited Teen Murti Bhawan on a Saturday, when lots of Delhi families, noisy children included, were sprawling across the place. The museum is only part of what is to be seen in the premises here; also within the huge grounds of Teen Murti Bhawan are an early medieval hunting lodge (Kushak Mahal) and the Nehru Planetarium. You can read about them here.

We walked past gardens, up to an imposing façade of typically colonial semi-circular arches, balconies, and shuttered windows, into the museum, which extends over two floors. The rooms are all wood-panelled, lovely old seasoned wood that looked glowingly warm. A well-defined route is marked. All signs are in both English and Hindi, and text (such as in excerpts from letters) is always available with a translation as part of the label.

Surprisingly, a disproportionately large section of the museum is devoted to people other than Nehru. For instance, several galleries are about the social reformers who first began to emerge in ‘modern’ (read late 19th century) India: Ram Mohun Roy, Aurobindo, Keshabchandra Sen and so on—and the evolution of the Indian freedom movement, beginning with uprisings such as the Mutiny of 1857. There are photographs, reproductions of newspaper cuttings, quotations from people, extracts from letters and so on. A lot of this was really too much text for us, and we got bored after a while.

What was really interesting was the life of Nehru himself. This part of the exhibition is what one gets to see first—it’s labelled ‘Young Nehru’. The scion of an affluent Kashmiri Hindu family which shifted from Kashmir to Delhi during the 17th century, Jawaharlal Nehru spent his initial years in India, and was then sent to England to complete his education—first at Harrow, then at Trinity College in Cambridge. He went on to become a barrister before returning to India and joining in what was already becoming a fiery freedom struggle.

The interesting thing about this series of rooms is that there’s not much text, but lots of delightful old photographs and memorabilia: Nehru as a baby; Nehru with his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit (later an eminent politician in her own right); Nehru at the age of ten; Nehru at Harrow, later at Cambridge, and so on. (I loved a photo of an elderly Nehru coming to Harrow in 1960—he’s surrounded by students who are all obviously very joyful to see a celebrated alumnus amongst them)!

There’s even a postcard—written in barely-legible Hindi—to his mother in Delhi, to whom he wrote while holidaying in Kashmir. Best of all, to me, was a letter sent (when Nehru was at Harrow) to his father. Nehru was obviously more at ease writing in English than in Hindi; he talks about how he had been at the top of his form as expected, and had been informed that he would be given a prize—which he had assumed would be bestowed in the headmaster’s office. Nehru confesses to being ‘nervous’ on discovering that the prize was actually to be given in public!

This part of the exhibition has other gems: a photo of the newly-wed Nehru with his bride Kamla; a ‘formal wedding group photograph’; and a copy of the invitation sent out for Jawahar Lal and Kamla’s wedding reception. There are other photos, too, of Nehru’s children, including (of course) Indira, who was to go on to be India’s first (and to date, only) woman Prime Minister, till her assassination in 1984.

The upper storey of the museum is devoted more to Nehru’s role as a politician. There are photos and news clips, quotations and extracts from text here of him as the man who helped build independent India’s constitution (you can see the preamble to the Constitution too); who finalised the painful partition of India; and who later went on to help build India’s rural economy, its education, and more. There are photos, in the Ball Room, of Nehru as an ambassador of goodwill (and politics) abroad: with JFK; with Sukarno; even with Rabindranath Tagore and Walt Disney.

Finally, there are the sections that used to be Nehru’s personal rooms at Teen Murti Bhawan: his study (the museum includes books originally part of Nehru’s library); drawing room; and the room where he eventually died. Part of the upper storey is decorated with the many gifts Nehru accumulated during his interactions with other statesmen, or which were bestowed on him by a respectful populace: a gold key to the city of Tokyo; a bejewelled case from the USSR; a fabulous panel adorned with mother-of-pearl, depicting the four-lion national emblem of India, but made in Ethiopia, and so on.

All in all, an interesting museum, which helps vastly in bringing to life a man who helped mould modern India—and brings him to life in a very personal way. The museum has a souvenir shop (which we gave a miss), and entry to the museum is free. Teen Murti Bhawan is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9.30 to 5.30; no entry is allowed after 5.15. Photography is allowed all across the premises, except in parts of the Nehru Planetarium. Try to avoid visiting on the weekend, when it tends to get crowded and noisy. The gardens of the Bhawan are extensive and gorgeous in spring.

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library
Teen Murti House
New Delhi, India, 110011

Good Show!

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 25, 2011

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, besides being a statesman, was keenly interested in science – and one of his visions was to instil that same enthusiasm amongst his fellow Indians. More especially, amongst the children of India. In 1964, therefore, when Nehru died, a Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund was established, and it was from this fund that the Nehru Planetarium was built. The Planetarium – a rather nondescript building, with a squarish domed protrusion on top – stands within the grounds of Teen Murti Bhavan (which also houses the Nehru Museum). The main entrance to the planetarium is on the side facing the medieval hunting lodge known as Kushak Mahal.

The best-known of the exhibitions, shows and activities organised by the Nehru Planetarium are their daily shows: two in Hindi, and two in English. The shows in English are at 11.30 AM and 3.30 PM (in between are the shows in Hindi, and also special shows – if any are booked – for schools). While the ongoing exhibitions at the planetarium are free, you do have to buy tickets for the shows, at a reasonable Rs 50 per person. And you should be at the planetarium at least half an hour before the show is to begin. This, as it turned out, was convenient – we arrived at the Nehru Planetarium at about 10.40, bought our tickets (at the counter next to the entrance), and had enough time for a leisurely stroll through the small exhibition that forms part of the planetarium.

The exhibition is a mix of good and bad, imaginative and oh-so-boring. The boring bits are the typical ‘old-fashioned Indian government museum’ displays: the scaled-down models, the boring text, the not-terribly-lucid explanations. For instance, there are models of the Jantar Mantar observatories, built under the aegis of the 18th Maharaja Jai Singh: massive instruments (a sun dial whose top you reach by climbing a long staircase!). The models here at the planetarium have been explained to some extent, but in language that’s so technical, it’s virtually impossible for a layperson to understand. That is, unfortunately, the case with the bulk of the exhibits, even where they’re embellished with amazing photographs of star clouds, galaxies, planets and so on: the text reads as if it had been written by a physicist for an academic paper, and that too one that frowned upon frivolity of any kind.

Other exhibits involve the world’s earliest space scientists (Galileo, Kepler, Newton, et al – including copies of their letters/notes, even replicas of instruments they invented or used); astronomy through the ages and across the world (there’s a replica of an Inuit moon spirit; a question about whether the caves at Lascaux could’ve been the earliest observatory; early representations of the skies and of Earth); and a largish section – of course – on the history of astronomy in India. There’s even a model of Soyuz T, the first spacecraft (part of an Indo-Soviet mission) to carry an Indian astronaut into space.

There are explanations of space phenomena, many of them hurled as scientific facts (and in highly academic language as well – I haven’t studied physics for the past 20-odd years, and was pretty much at sea here). Since the planetarium is a sort of memorial to Nehru, there’s also a small section on Nehru’s interactions with science and scientists (photos with Einstein, Homi Bhabha, and other scientists; Nehru visiting Indian research labs; and – most endearing of all – a letter written by Nehru to his 10-year old daughter Indira, trying to explain the concepts of Earth and space).

A handful of exhibits are more hands-on and interesting: for instance, there’s a weighing scale which you can climb on to, and press buttons on the panel in front to see how much you’d weigh on each of the planets. And there are a few interesting little facts: "Light from the sun takes 8 minutes to reach you; thus you see the sun as it was 8 minutes ago. It might have blown up 4 minutes ago and you wouldn’t know about it!" or "The atmosphere on earth is proportionately thinner than the skin on an apple", or "A teaspoonful of neutron star would weigh more than the weight of all the people of the earth".

But: the best part, by far, of the planetarium is the show. We watched an English show called ‘The Astronaut’ and were enthralled throughout – it was informative, but at the same time lots of fun. The show is held in the Sky Theatre, a circular, high-domed auditorium with a digital projector that projects the show onto the inside of the dome. ‘The Astronaut’ is a CGI work, embellished with sound and other effects, to show viewers what it takes to be an astronaut: the training required, the daily schedule of an astronaut in space, what an astronaut’s living quarters are like, what the space suit consists of, and so on. And – very importantly – why. Why the space suit, the strict exercise regimen, the rigorous training, and so on – all of this was shown with the help of an animated character named Chad, who becomes a guinea pig for a scientist who subjects Chad to all that space flings at intruders: high radioactivity (Chad gets cooked); sub-zero temperatures (Chad becomes a pile of ice), space debris (Chad gets knocked down under a pile of it), and so on. The visual and audio effects throughout were superb – for example, the effect created to depict takeoff, made us so dizzy we had to shut our eyes briefly.

The show lasted for half an hour, and rarely have I seen half an hour go by so soon. It ended with a 10-minute session on what that day’s night sky would look like in Delhi (if one could see past all the particulate and light pollution in the city, that is). The planetarium’s resident astronomer showed us how the stars would move, which constellations would rise when, where they could be seen, and which important stars and planets to look out for in which part of the sky.

The planetarium itself is so-so. But the show? Well, it certainly makes the planetarium worth visiting!

Nehru Museum & Planetarium (Teen Murti Bhavan)
Teen Murti Marg
New Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi
11 301 3765

A Memorial to India’s First Woman Prime Minister

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 25, 2011

I still remember the day Indira Gandhi was killed. I was nearly 12 years old on October 31, 1984, and since that was the last working day of the month, our school would give over at half-day. The rest of the day – hallelujah! – was ours to go home and spend as we wished. That afternoon, we piled out of school and were getting into the school bus when news began spreading that Indira Gandhi – India’s first (and only, even till today) Prime Minister had been shot dead. To us kids, she had been a distant, dominating fixture, a grim and stern-faced lady with a shock of white hair whom we glimpsed occasionally on TV news, or saw photos of, in the newspapers.

I’ve been living in Delhi for over 25 years now – we arrived here in October 1985, almost exactly a year after Mrs Gandhi’s death. And it was only recently that I decided to finally visit the Indira Gandhi memorial at 1, Safdarjang Road. This large white house, with its tree-shaded grounds in the heart of New Delhi, was Indira Gandhi’s home for many years. She first came to live here in 1964 after the death of her father Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. In 1965, Mrs Gandhi was appointed the minister for Information & Broadcasting; and the year after that, she became Prime Minister – a post she held till 1977. Throughout this period, she lived at 1 Safdarjang Road. When she again became PM in 1980, she shifted back, and lived on here until that day in 1984, when, walking across to the neighbouring house (1, Akbar Road, where she was scheduled to give an interview to the BBC), she was assassinated by her own body guards.

Indira Gandhi’s house has been converted into a museum and memorial now. We visited on a Saturday and got in line behind a throng of tourists, many of them from rural and small-town India (at any given time during the day, you will almost certainly see at least 2 or 3 tourist buses parked outside – the memorial is one of Delhi’s top sights). The line moved fast, thankfully, past the security barrier at the gate. But, once inside the house, things became stifling. With dozens of people milling around, pushing and shoving and jostling to get a better view at the exhibits, this turned out to be an unpleasant experience.

Not that the museum itself is bad. In fact, it is good. What I particularly liked was the fact that they’ve concentrated on using visuals to ‘talk’ about Indira Gandhi, rather than the more common Indian concept of huge panels of text that you need to read through. There are bits of text, of course – reproductions, mainly, of newspapers headlines from across India and the world pertaining to Mrs Gandhi: her coming to power; the important decisions she took; her assassination; and so on. But the bulk of the display consists of things. Photographs are predominant. There’s the little girl with Mahatma Gandhi (no relative of hers, by the way: it just so happened that a grown-up Indira Nehru married a man named Feroze Gandhi). There’s Indira as an attractive young woman, her short hair blowing in the breeze. Or an even younger woman, posing in a studio. Or with her relatives: her parents, Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamala Nehru; her young sons, Rajiv and Sanjay; and an especially sweet one of her as the doting grandmother playing with a pint-sized Priyanka Gandhi, their hands linked together as they whirl around on a lawn.

There are, of course, dozens of photos of Mrs Gandhi, the politician and stateswoman: on tour in India; at press conferences and international summit-level meetings; with presidents and other Prime Ministers; going about her work as the leader of a troubled nation plagued by a million problems.

Also on display are Mrs Gandhi’s possessions – there are, for instance, knitting needles stuck through a ball of crimson wool; a small metal box crowded with colourful papier maché vegetables; a portable scrabble board… there is a wooden box gifted to her by her husband Feroze; he had carved it himself. And, fittingly, there are photos of Indira and Feroze’s wedding in 1942 (he died of a heart attack 18 years later, in 1960). Alongside the wedding photographs are wedding memorabilia: the copper utensils used by the priests at the ceremony, and more interesting, Indira’s wedding sari, which was woven from yarn that had been spun by Jawaharlal Nehru while he was imprisoned for anti-colonial activities.

To me, these were the most interesting sections of the museum; to the bulk of the visitors, the central attraction seems to be a more gruesome sari: the one Mrs Gandhi had been wearing when she was killed. It’s been carefully folded (and possibly washed? – we couldn’t see any obvious bloodstains, though the cloth itself is a dull rust), and has been draped on a platform, along with the shoes she was wearing and the bag she was carrying.

Adjacent to these galleries are a few of the rooms, as they were in Mrs Gandhi’s days: her dining room, her drawing room (where she played host to people like Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Margaret Thatcher et al), her bed room and study, and even her prayer room.

Beyond these rooms, are a couple of rooms dedicated to Mrs Gandhi’s elder son (and successor as PM), Rajiv Gandhi. Besides being a politician, Rajiv Gandhi was also a trained airline pilot, a keen photographer, and an amateur radio operator. The galleries devoted to him are full of personal memorabilia: drawings by the child Rajiv (some very cute ones, here, all haywire, of the Indian national flag); photos of a young and very-much-in-love Rajiv and his Italian-born wife Sonia; photos of Rajiv as PM; and photos by Rajiv. These were among my favourites: this man was a brilliant photographer, and there are some fabulous photos of wildlife (a snarling tiger, for instance), nature (landscapes in Ladakh) and people, on display.

The unsettling part of the display was the set of clothes (washed, but torn to bits) that Rajiv Gandhi had been wearing when he was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991.

Once you’re outside the rooms, you follow a paved path which leads from the house through the lawns – the route Indira Gandhi would take every morning before office to walk to 1 Akbar Road for meetings. This route ends at a section that’s been paved with crystal (it looked more like plastic to me) ‘to symbolise a river’. Near the end, covered with clear glass, is the spot where Mrs Gandhi was killed. It’s constantly guarded, so you can’t, even if you’ve a taste for the gruesome, go have a peek.

Entry to the memorial, museum and grounds are free and there are no restrictions on photography. No eatables or drinks are allowed inside. Weekends, at least, are terribly crowded; I would imagine weekdays (between Tuesday and Friday, since the memorial is closed on Mondays) might be a little less busy.

Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum
Safdarjang Road
New Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi

Mahatma Gandhi, Up Close

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 25, 2011

The name of the road on which this mansion is situated is evocative in itself – ‘Tees January’ means ‘30th January’, the date on which, in 1948, Mohandas Karamchand ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, was assassinated. Birla House, where Gandhi Smriti (the ‘Gandhi Memorial’) is housed, is a lovely white double-storeyed colonial building, with bluish-grey shuttered windows, arches, porticoes and columns, with a large lawn and gardens at the back. The house was built in the 1930s, and became Gandhi’s residence – usually only for a couple of days at a time, whenever he was passing through Delhi on his way to far-flung parts of the country. Eventually, he did stay here, in the last 144 days of his life – he was killed in the gardens at the back of Birla House.

I visited Gandhi Smriti on my own. Just inside the entrance, a helpful lady at the Information counter told me that there is no entrance fee, and that cameras are allowed all across the complex. She also gave me a brief outline of what’s to be seen here, and the fact that the museum staff go on lunch from 1.30 to 2.30. That seemed like a useless piece of information, but it actually has a bearing on what you’ll see, because there’s a major section here that’s best seen when there are staff members around to guide you.

On the ground floor, the large part of the museum is taken up by galleries that contain photos of Gandhi and his associates, and Gandhi’s quotes on just about everything: the emancipation of women; rural development; the improvement of the harijan (‘lower’ castes or so-called ‘untouchables’), primary education, self-rule for India, love and peace and equality for all, and plenty more. Gandhi seemed to have a decided opinion on everything under the sun. Most of it makes a lot of sense, but after going through one gallery after another, all of them filled with platitudes pouring from the mouth of this man, I began feeling rather sick of him. Fortunately, there were the occasional interesting interludes. For instance, there is a description of Gandhi’s last day alive: what time he woke, what he ate, how his day was scheduled, how he went out, leaning on the shoulders of his two grand-nieces (whom he called his ‘walking sticks’!) to attend a prayer meeting that was being organised on the back lawn of Birla House… and how his assassin, Nathuram Godse, came up, pretending to bend and do a namaste, while whipping out a Beretta and firing point-blank at Gandhi. Okay, maybe a little too gory for most people (there are some accompanying photos too, all in black and white), but it was different from the rest.

Other interesting parts of this display were the exhibits on photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, who both took some brilliant photographs of India and Gandhi. While on the subject: there’s also a brief section on depictions of Gandhi in paintings: several Indian painters, including the brilliant Jamini Roy, have made paintings of Gandhi.

Beyond that, and overlooking the front of Birla House, is a small wood-panelled auditorium on which they constantly run (except between 1.30 and 2.30) a film on Gandhi. The film is run alternately in Hindi and in English, but after sitting and watching it for a while, I got bored – it seemed to me to be pretty much a repeat of all that I’d seen and read in the displays.

On the ground floor, too, are the rooms Gandhi occupied when he stayed at Birla House. They’re maintained in the same simple style that he adopted, and some of his possessions – his spectacles and spectacle case, cutlery, and so on – is on display in a glass case.

Probably the best part of the Gandhi Smriti is the digital museum on the first floor. Once I’d finished with the galleries on the ground floor, I went upstairs, and was greeted by a docent who wanted to know if I was on my own, or if somebody would be joining me. Within moments, another docent – one of several, each of them escorting individual visitors or groups – had begun to take me around the digital museum. This is an unusual (at least for India) gallery, because it interprets Gandhi, his times, everything that is associated with Gandhi – through installation art. There is, for example, a large wheel (symbolic of the ‘spinning wheel’ that Gandhi used to spin thread, to signify his oneness with India’s toiling millions). The wheel is spokeless and made of metal – but all you have to do is flutter a hand inside it, and the strains of one of Gandhi’s favourite Hindu hymns, Raghupati raaghav Raja Ram, burst forth. There are other spinning wheels, in different shapes, colours, and sizes, which can actually be turned using a handle to do so – and which activate a Gandhi-related slideshow on a nearby wall. There is a set of 6" high dolls, each painted to resemble a specific person, standing around a large square. The docent with me showed me how this works: you pick up any doll and place it briefly on the centre of the square to see a slideshow about who that person was (in my case, it turned out to be M A Jinnah, Pakistan’s first president), how that person was associated with Gandhi, and what he/she had to say about Gandhi.

There are other things – a xylophone, for instance, which, when lightly banged with its mallet, produces (all on its own) another rendition of Raghupati raaghav Raja Ram. There are beautifully embroidered handicraft wall-hangings to symbolise Gandhi’s love for handloom and handicraft (he was, by his own admission, against the all-embracing love for machinery, and felt that it would eventually wipe out indigenous crafts). There is even a small replica of a train engine – you get inside it, and on a screen in front is an animation, beginning with a map of the important places Gandhi visited in India. Move a gear, and an animated train chugs off to the place in question, and you’re subjected to (treated to? Depends on how you see it) a slideshow on how Gandhi was connected with that place.

The docents at the digital museum are bilingual and can conduct you around in either English or Hindi. They don’t need to be tipped.

Once you come downstairs from the digital museum, you can see the (rather dusty and moth-eaten) ‘dioramas’ depicting scenes from Gandhi’s life – these are in the gallery next door to the exit. After leaving the building, you can go round the back, where a path (with Gandhi’s footsteps marked on it) retraces the route he took to his death. This path ends at the Martyr’s Column, a small stone pavilion that marks exactly where Gandhi was killed. Beyond that is a slightly larger pavilion, painted in a beautifully Buddhist-Tibetan style, of Gandhi and his life.

If Gandhi fascinates you, do see this memorial. I thought it interesting in some ways, but the bulk of the displays – those boring and often repetitive photos, dioramas and text about Gandhi, making him out to be a saint – are tedious, and give what is obviously a very one-sided view of the man. (In this respect, I much preferred the Jawaharlal Nehru museum at Teen Murti Bhawan; it gives a good glimpse into the man, not just the statesman). Other than the restored rooms, the Martyr’s path and Column, and the digital museum – which does have its drawbacks and can be repetitive – there isn’t that much here to see if you aren’t a Gandhi buff.

Gandhi Smriti
5 Tees January Marg
New Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi, 110011

Not a Museum You Want to See

Member Rating 1 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 25, 2011

This, when I first discovered that it was a no-charge museum, was meant to be part of my Delhi: Ten Sights to See for Free journal. After visiting the museum, I realised I couldn’t possibly put this museum in that journal. Nobody, even for free, should be expected to visit something like this. I couldn’t give this even a Somewhat Recommended rating.

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.

National Museum of Natural History
Federation House, Tansen Marg
New Delhi, 110001
91 11 2331 4849

No wonder this is free...

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by phileasfogg on September 5, 2012

When I’m visiting something that calls itself a ‘museum of fine art’ (yes, that is what this one is called, in some of its signs—it doesn’t seem to have quite made up its mind), I expect something with an impressive collection of fine art. If not well-labelled, at least impressive as far as exhibits go. The Children’s Museum (or, the Museum of Fine Art—perhaps they think of it as a museum of fine art for children) is one of the most disappointing museums I’ve seen.

It’s based on the concept of bringing together reproductions of some of India’s finest sculpture within one set of galleries, to make them more easily accessible to those who may never get to travel to Mahabalipuram or Sanchi or wherever the originals are to be found. A laudable endeavour, true; but unfortunately executed in such a shoddy way that it ends up detracting from its purpose.

We hadn’t meant to visit the Children’s Museum at all; it just so happened that we wanted to visit the Mohammadwali Masjid opposite, and the locked gate could only be opened by somebody from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), whose office is at the museum (which, by the way, is also the brainchild of the ASI). The gentleman took us all the way to the mosque, gave us a guided tour, and then insisted that we come back and have a look at the museum. My husband and I aren’t too good at saying ‘no’, and this man had been really rather generous with his time, so we agreed.

This didn’t really eat into our time, actually, because the museum—though it’s housed in a fairly spacious building—is tiny. As you enter, there’s a rather dark vestibule, with some sculptures in stone. Beyond, there’s an open quadrangle—a grassy rectangle, surrounded on all four sides by the two-storied building. In the quadrangle are three large sculptures: one of the Narsimha (the half-man, half-lion incarnation of the Hindu deity, Vishnu); one of the Ashokan capital with its four lions (the capital is the national emblem of India); and one of the Hindu trinity.

Our guide led us on to the first gallery, a tiny room which is lined with photographs of India’s World Heritage Sites. Yes, that’s it. They’re merely labelled with the name of the site; there are no descriptions, no history—let alone anything else that might be even vaguely informative or interactive.

There’s another gallery, which is devoted to the major historical sites in Delhi—in most cases, sites where the ASI’s conservation and restoration work have helped rejuvenate the sites. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos of each site are interesting, but with (again!) no descriptions, it’s all really rather flat and boring. Since our guide was obviously so proud of it all, we murmured praise, but you’d need to have exceptionally low standards to think this was good stuff.

Next came another display of reproduced sculptures: a slightly larger room, with some relatively good reproductions of works of art: a Sakyamuni (‘fasting Buddha’), a Gandhar-style Buddha (the Gandhar form of ancient Indian sculpture borrows heavily from Greek influences); ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ (a frieze from the shore temples at Mahabalipuram), etc.

Lastly (yes, there only five rooms open right now), we were shown a room, the aim of which is to sensitise people to the misuse and neglect of historical monuments—graffiti, encroachments, all the junk and debris and other ghastly stuff you see being dumped at unprotected monuments (even sometimes at protected ones) across the length and breadth of India. This has been done by basically replicating a historical site—something that looks like a medieval room—and covering the walls with graffiti, posters, etc; and by dumping everything from an old bicycle to a lantern, mattress and bedsheet in a corner. Fairly realistic, but I don’t know how much this really achieves. Wouldn’t people who take the trouble to come to this obscure little museum already be aware that one shouldn’t treat heritage in this shabby fashion? Even if they aren’t, will this be enough to shame them into respecting heritage a bit?

Anyway, as I mentioned in the headline, at least this is free. It’s tiny, it’s really not worth the effort, and until they think up a more innovative way of putting across the message, this is one museum you’d probably be better off omitting.

Children's Museum
Near Siri Fort Sports Complex
New Delhi, India

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