Afire extinguisher on every floor, but not one worked. While the fire that broke out at Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History may indeed have been an “accident”, as authorities responsible for the building claim, its fate was sealed by administrative failure. Had the installed firefighting equipment worked, the response to the accident would have been immediate and, perhaps, 200 irreplaceable specimens and exhibits would not have been lost. Losses include dinosaur fossils, which are relatively rare in India. The museum is managed by the ministry of environment and forests, at premises rented from the Ficci. Apart from the failure to maintain safety equipment, it transpires that the building had a no-objection certificate from the fire department only for an auditorium, not for the display galleries.
The destruction of exhibits at the museum has set a few heart-strings twanging in Delhi, but only because it’s a popular destination for school excursions. Young people who have been to school in the capital fondly recall the fibreglass dinosaur rearing outside the building. But generally, there’s very little public interest in conservation. And in the absence of public pressure, the authorities are lax. The Archaeological Survey of India is happy to put up boards outside historical monuments threatening vandals with fierce retribution, but then it goes to sleep while the media grimly report encroachment and defacement year after year. The maintenance of history is cumulative work, but we are fatigued all too easily. The loss of prehistoric artefacts and natural history specimens is even more tragic than damage to holdings of more recent provenance, since they are often irreplaceable. Sometimes, fossil specimens uniquely place species in the timeline of evolution. If they are lost, scientists’ vision is impaired.
The museum fire follows the brouhaha about reclaiming the Kohinoor. If India were to recover it and put it on display, what would its chances of survival look like? Its resistance to fire would be adamantine, naturally, but other crises cannot be ruled out. The very day the natural history museum went up in smoke, a dagger presented to Jawaharlal Nehru by the government of Saudi Arabia vanished from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The fire flourished for the lack of working fire extinguishers. Nehru’s gift could be stolen with impunity because of the lack of security cameras. Both were failures, not accidents, and they indicate a culture of callousness about the past.