The year was 1977. Senior curator of National Museum of Natural History in Delhi, Vilas Gogate, was at his desk when a call came from a family in Ooty. The basement of the house that they had recently purchased from a late British Army general’s family had a collection of boxes which contained bird’s eggs, in all shapes and sizes. “I rushed there and what I saw left me amazed. There were boxes of eggs with dates marked on them, some dating back to 18th century. There was even a large ostrich egg, which isn’t even found in India. I brought the eggs to the museum. Now, it’s all burnt in the fire; no one will see it again. It is lost to the future generations,” says the taxidermist who retired as senior curator in 1998 after 22 years of service.
Like the eggs, thousands of specimens – from mammals to amphibians, reptiles and birds, butterflies to reptiles – which were preserved by Gogate and scientists like him were gutted in a major fire at the museum in the wee hours of Tuesday.
Ask him about any favourites and he says, “Each exhibit was special, but we had some collections which were so valuable that we didn’t even display it except on a special occasion. There was one specimen, a partially melanine black tiger skin which came to us in 1987-88. It had been confiscated by the Customs department. It was the only one-of-its-kind in the country. There were extinct animals, like a cheetah head which some British lady had donated to the Zoological Survey of India and they had given it to us. All this is lost to the future generations now as it is impossible to build this collection again. Very few people even practise taxidermy now,” says Gogate.
At his residence in Pune where his phones have been ringing since morning, he recalls the days when the museum opened in 1978. “After the Stockholm conference, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to start the museum which was to act as a mouthpiece of Ministry of Environment and Forests. It was supposed to convey message of conservation through various programmes and even open district centres.
But a few years into it, the museum was not so important anymore. Forget district-wise centres, we didn’t even get a space for national museum and kept operating out of the FICCI building till yesterday,” says Gogate, who had left National History Museum in Baghdad to join NMNH.
And it is the FICCI he blames for “choking” the museum for years. “In today’s time, money is important. Heritage and culture takes the backseat. For FICCI, the museum was secondary. They did everything to hinder us. Our cars and that of visitors were not allowed to park despite us occupying six floors. They would close visitors’ entry to museum on days of their events and schoolchildren often returned from the gate,” he says.
Gogate says that for 25 years, he heard of the museum shifting to a new location, but the land was never procured. “Once we were shown a place near the zoo on Bhairon Marg but the main drainage pipeline was passing through there and hence construction wasn’t possible.
There was another place, which is a park now. But there were overheard wires there and we could construct only to one-and-a-half floor.
How can one build a national museum there? There was never a government will or else we would have had our own place,” he said.
With museums across the world turning to sculptures now that taxidermy is slowly losing popularity, Gogate says the government should now focus on empowering the regional centres, which do have a few good exhibits left. “Whatever we can salvage from the fire, must be must be preserved along with exhibits at regional centres. It might be the last of it as taxidermy is a dying art,” he signs off.