NA­TIONAL HIS­TORY CU­RA­TION AND CRE­ATIVE DE­STRUC­TION

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature -

Nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums must now tell more com­plex stories about cli­mate change, bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion and how an ex­pand­ing hu­man world has to live with the wildlife that is left. The fires in Delhi and Kolkata could serve a trans­for­ma­tive pur­pose if they can shake mu­seum cu­ra­tors away from the old dis­plays, writes

It didn’t mat­ter that most peo­ple might re­mem­ber Delhi’s Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory as a rather down-at-heel, if child­pleas­ing, way to spend some hours. It didn’t mat­ter that the dis­plays were clearly out of date, that its vis­i­tor count was fall­ing and that its land­lord was try­ing to kick it out of the build­ing.

Its fiery de­struc­tion this week was still, ac­cord­ing to en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter Prakash Javadekar, a ma­jor loss for “our na­tional her­itage.” News­pa­per re­ports that de­tailed the items spoke of taxi­dermy spec­i­mens pro­duced decades with a skill that no longer ex­isted in In­dia and of “an am­monite fos­sil, an ex­tinct marine mol­lusc. It was, per­haps, the only one in In­dia.” Am­monites are among the most com­monly found fos­sils across the world and in In­dia some kinds are ac­tu­ally ven­er­ated as ‘shaligrams’ or sym­bols of Lord Vishnu. And In­dia is full of taxi­dermy spec­i­mens of an­i­mals of all kinds, relics from the Bri­tish Raj which fetishized them as sym­bols of hunt­ing prow­ess. There are prob­a­bly more than enough, in old palaces and clubs, to sup­ply mul­ti­ple mu­se­ums. Mum­bai also has a cen­tre for taxi­dermy at the Sanjay Gandhi Na­tional Park which has mounted spec­i­mens from the city’s zoo. The Mu­seum could, the­o­ret­i­cally, re­plen­ish its dis­plays from there.

That is, if th­ese rather creepy cre­ations re­ally have a place in a mod­ern mu­seum. Mounted spec­i­mens of dead an­i­mals do con­vey the phys­i­cal di­men­sions of an­i­mals and might have some ghoul­ish ap­peal to chil­dren. But the way they are of­ten used in mu­se­ums, posed in dio­ra­mas painted and styled to show the nat­u­ral set­tings th­ese an­i­mals lived in, has surely out­lived its pur­pose at a time out­stand­ing film footage of liv­ing an­i­mals is eas­ily avail­able on TV chan­nels like Dis­cov­ery and Na­tional Ge­o­graphic.

Which is not to sug­gest that there were not real losses in Delhi’s fire, or a sim­i­lar fire on March 21st in Kolkata which de­stroyed many spec­i­mens in the Zool­ogy Depart­ment of Bal­ly­gunge Sci­ence Col­lege. Some spec­i­mens, like the sauro­pod fe­mur, were clearly unique, and many might have had sci­en­tific value be­yond their dis­play pur­poses. And there is never any ex­cuse for the lack­adaisi­cal at­ti­tude to­wards fire safety that puts so many of our her­itage build­ings and col­lec­tions at risk.

But that’s still no rea­son for those who run th­ese mu­se­ums, whether the sci­en­tists who are the cu­ra­tors or the ad­min­is­tra­tors like the Min­is­ter, to pre­tend that th­ese are ir­re­place­able in­sti­tu­tions and to feed non­sense about lost am­monites to jour­nal­ists. Be­cause it is ex­actly this kind of un­think­ing at­ti­tude that lead to the sad state most nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums in In­dia are now in.

In an ar­ti­cle on the rise of nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums the Amer­i­can ge­ol­o­gist Oliver Far­ring­ton, Bri­tish Mu­seum in 1773.

An­other source would be mer­chants who brought back spec­i­mens from trad­ing voy­ages, as a sign of the ex­otic places they went to, and the prod­ucts they got back. One of the ear­li­est Amer­i­can mu­se­ums was formed in Salem, Mas­sachusetts in 1799 for the col­lec­tion as­sem­bled by the East In­dian Marine So­ci­ety, traders who had sailed to In­dia and other parts of Asia for spices and silks. The peo­ple en­trusted with cat­a­logu­ing th­ese col­lec­tions would be­come ma­jor naturalists, like Louis Ag­ga­siz.

In­dia’s nat­u­ral his­tory col­lec­tions have had el­e­ments of all th­ese sources. Shaligrams and conch shells were used for Hindu rit­ual pur­poses and Mughal Em­per­ors like Je­hangir col­lected ex­otic an­i­mals. But it was mer­chants in Bom­bay who helped form the Bom­bay Nat­u­ral His­tory So­ci­ety (BNHS) which would cre­ate the Nat­u­ral His­tory sec­tion of the Prince of Wales Mu­seum (now the CSMVS) when it opened in 1928 with a then quite new pre­sen­ta­tion of mounted an­i­mals in dio­ra­mas.

At that open­ing, it was Sir Regi­nald Spence, a ist, SH Prater, an An­glo-In­dian who had joined the BNHS as a lowly lab­o­ra­tory as­sis­tant and worked his way up, with lit­tle for­mal train­ing, to be­com­ing a col­lec­tor and the cu­ra­tor who had put to­gether the dis­play. Prater would go on rep­re­sent An­gloIn­di­ans in the Con­stituent Assem­bly of In­dia.

In­di­ans at that time had lit­tle idea of the di­ver­sity of their wildlife. Peo­ple knew the big an­i­mals like tigers and ele­phants, but lit­tle of the in­sect life, the an­i­mals of the Hi­malayas or Northeast or marine life. Even naturalists were only be­gin­ning to dis­cover sites like the ‘f lamingo city’ nest­ing grounds of the Rann of Kutch. Those early ex­hibits of spec­i­mens and dio­ra­mas were important for pre­sent­ing ex­actly this.

An­other ed­u­ca­tional re­quire­ment of that time was for teach­ing about evo­lu­tion. This has been a highly con­tentious is­sue for nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums in the USA where evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians have bit­terly op­posed such dis­plays. (Some have even opened their own Bi­b­li­cal ‘his­tory’ mu­se­ums which show hu­mans and di­nosaurs in­ter­act­ing with each other!) In­di­ans, by con­trast, had lit­tle prob­lem ac­cept­ing that we were, as Gandhi once said, ‘avatars of apes’.

To­day needs of nat­u­ral his­tory are dif­fer­ent. Tours to nat­u­ral parks al­low peo­ple to experience th­ese places di­rectly (if they still ex­ist), and nat­u­ral his­tory TV shows – which have reached ex­tremely high stan­dards – present them for those who can’t go. There will al­ways be a space for ba­sic dis­plays of spec­i­mens, but the larger re­quire­ment is now dif­fer­ent.

To­day’s nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums must tell more com­plex stories about cli­mate change, bio­di­ver­sity con­ser­va­tion and how an ex­pand­ing hu­man world has to live with the wildlife that is left. This could mean, for ex­am­ple, talk­ing less about tigers than the leop­ards that, al­most uniquely in the world, now live within the ur­ban sprawl of Mum­bai. The city’s naturalists have tried, with some suc­cess, to man­age the con­flict this leads to, but more ed­u­ca­tion about them will help a great deal.

In­dia’s mu­se­ums need to ed­u­cate their vis­i­tors about the need to con­serve our coast­lines. In­stead of just show­ing fish spec­i­mens, they need to show the prob­lems of over­fish­ing. They need to talk about our rivers and how cli­mate change is dry­ing them up. They need to talk about the crops we use and their ef­fect on ground­wa­ter re­sources. And they need to do this in ways that are still vis­ually ap­peal­ing enough not to seem too drea­rily ed­u­ca­tional.

Nat­u­ral his­tory mu­se­ums abroad are do­ing this. They are chang­ing dis­plays, get­ting rid of ex­hibits that are no longer ac­cept­able (such as hu­man spec­i­mens) and eas­ing sci­en­tific ac­cess to their col­lec­tions. This has had to be done at a time when gov­ern­ment fund­ing is fall­ing, ne­ces­si­tat­ing fundrais­ing from pri­vate and cor­po­rate sources (the many life sci­ence com­pa­nies are of­ten will­ing to help). It has meant be­ing cre­ative and a good ex­am­ple is how the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in­creased foot­falls of over 20% from the Night at the Mu­seum films.

None of this means com­pro­mis­ing the sci­en­tific and ed­u­ca­tional side of mu­se­ums. It ac­tu­ally in­creases it, by re­mind­ing cu­ra­tors that they don’t run static spa­ces, but ones whose needs change with time and the new re­quire­ments of both the public and sci­en­tists. There is al­ready a great deal of cre­ative nat­u­ral his­tory work be­ing done in In­dia, but it has been kept apart from mu­seum dis­plays and this must change. The fires in Delhi and Kolkata have been trau­matic, but if they can shake mu­seum cu­ra­tors away from the old dis­plays, they might still serve a trans­for­ma­tive pur­pose.

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