NATIONAL HISTORY CURATION AND CREATIVE DESTRUCTION
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 It didn’t matter that the displays were clearly out of date, that its visitor count was falling and that its landlord was trying to kick it out of the building.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.