In New Delhi, a Nation’s Treasures Consumed by Fire
“A loss of a natural history collection at this scale has not been seen outside of war."
When the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi burned down this week, along with many of its priceless specimens, curators called its destruction an unprecedented disaster. The Indian government said it would build a new museum. But experts said the destruction of the display collection, which included a 160-million-year-old sauropod fossil, represents an irrevocable loss -- not just for India, but the world.
When the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi burned down this week, along with many of its priceless specimens, curators called its destruction an unprecedented disaster. The Indian government said it would build a new museum. But experts said the destruction of the display collection, which included a 160-million-year-old sauropod fossil, represents an irrevocable loss — not just for India, but the world.
“A loss of a natural history collection at this scale has not been seen outside of war,” Corrie Moreau, a professor and curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, told Foreign Policy.
“This is a devastating loss for all museums,” Moreau said. “Scientists around the world rely on natural history collections to serve as the archive and source of material for scientific research, and a loss such as this will have ripple effects around the globe, now and for decades, even centuries, into the future.”
Moreau had planned to visit the New Delhi museum in May.
“The loss cannot be counted in rupees,” Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, whose agency ran the museum, told reporters Tuesday. Richard Lariviere, president and CEO of the Field Museum, extended sympathy and dismay in a letter to Javadekar, and offered assistance.
The New Delhi museum, a brainchild of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, opened its doors in 1978. Guidebook Lonely Planet described it as a popular destination for the capital’s youth, known for “colorful but fading exhibits and boisterous groups of schoolchildren.”
Police do not yet know what caused Tuesday’s fire, but the flammability of some taxidermied specimens aided in its rapid spread. Six firefighters were injured while putting it out. Local news services were able to capture footage of the blaze. Over the next few days, officials will investigate what, if anything, survived the flames. “The news coming out of India is that all the collections were lost,” Moreau said. “This encompasses both their public displays and the scientific collections.”
The building that burned also housed the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Javadekar ordered a fire audit of the ministry’s other buildings and museums. The Natural History Museum’s fire safety system was “not functioning” at the time of the fire, according to officials.
Cultural institutions are as vulnerable as ordinary buildings to “common ignition sources” that cause fires — if not more so, according to J. Andrew Wilson, former assistant director of fire protection and safety for the Smithsonian Institution.
High standards of housekeeping, orderliness, equipment maintenance, and staff training are necessary to prevent fires at museums and cultural sites, Wilson wrote in a statement on fire protection, posted on the website of the U.S. National Archives. The Smithsonian, which operates 19 museums and nine research centers in Washington, did not respond to FP’s request for a comment on the New Delhi fire.
Officials have not yet said why the museum’s safety systems failed.
Javadekar said his ministry would rebuild. Some 6.5 acres in New Delhi have already been allocated, according to a government statement emailed to FP.
A new building is only the first step: The museum could spend decades building back up its collection of herpetological specimens, preserved butterflies, fossils, and mounted animals.
“The biodiversity of India is unique and underrepresented in many international collections,” Moreau said. “The reaction of scientists the world over has been one of tremendous loss and concern.”
Natural history museums aren’t just educational tools, but also important repositories for information on the natural world that can’t be replaced, she said. “This is why they are national and international treasures.”
Photo credit: Screengrab from ANI news footage
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.