Delhi rewind: How the National Museum of Natural History became a center for environmental activism in Delhi

In 1977, Asif Naqvi (68) was on a college trip to New Delhi when he first came across the National Museum of Natural History that was in the final stages of being completed. Naqvi was at that time a 24-year-old, studying museology at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) after having completed his Master’s in Zoology. “Whenever we think of museums, art and culture are the first things that come to our minds. But here I was pleasantly surprised to encounter conversations around nature, conservation, evolution, and the like,” said Naqvi. “The first thought that came to mind was that now we biologists can also dream of being museologists.”

After a brief interaction with the founder-director of the museum, SM Nair, Naqvi sat on the lawsns of the museum where the iconic dinosaur replica once stood and thought to himself how wonderful it would be to be working in a space such as this. “I already had a fascination for Mandi House, being a theater enthusiast. Working at the natural history museum, I thought, would fulfill both my cultural as well as intellectual interests.”

About a year later, and six months after the NMNH opened to the public, Naqvi’s dream came true as he got hired as a museum assistant. “I was the happiest person. I would work here during the day and do theater in the evenings. It was also here that I found my passion for the environment,” said Naqvi, who retired as dean of the faculty of life sciences and chairman of the department of museology at AMU.

The idea of ​​a natural history museum had been conceived six years earlier, in 1972, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Indian Independence. The United Nations Conference for Human Development was held in Stockholm in Sweden that year and Indira Gandhi was one of the few country heads who had attended it. After returning to India, she proposed the building of a natural history museum in New Delhi.

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The concept of natural history museums was already well established in the West by then. However, in Delhi, the museum was to have a whole new meaning. “Internationally, the basic function of natural history museums was to establish large collections of geological, botanical and zoological specimens (insects, fossils, plants, birds, bones, and the like) and their preservation,” Naqvi explained. “But the mandate of the NMNH was to spread awareness through its collections, exhibitions and activities about the need for environmental conservation.”

It is with this objective that the NMNH opened to the public on June 5, 1978, on World Environment Day. It was established inside the FICCI building at Mandi House, where it stayed until it was destroyed in a massive fire in April 2016.

Before the establishment of NMNH, Mandi House was known as the cultural center of Delhi. But after NMNH, Mandi House also became a center for environmental activism. Naqvi recalled how some of the biggest names among environmentalists in India like Sunita Narain, Ashish Kothari and Sharad Gaur would visit the museum for meetings and exhibitions. “In our canteen and halls, and in Triveni and Sri Ram Centre, we would sit and discuss issues affecting the environment,” Naqvi said.

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He said that because of NMNH, even those who were not environmentalists, like filmmakers and theater, became interested in the environment. Being a theater enthusiast, Naqvi had joined the street play theater group Jana Natya Manch, which was doing plays on social issues at that time. “But being influenced by NMNH, I wrote plays on environmental issues such as the Bhopal gas tragedy, ozone layer depletion, tiger poaching, pollution, etc.”

The 1970s and 80s were the decades when environmentalism and nature conservation was taking roots in India. Some of the biggest moments in the history of environmental movements in India like the Silent Valley movement, the Chipko movement, the Appiko movement, and the Narmada Bachao Andolan had all started during this period. “The government was also beginning to be concerned about environmental issues and the establishment of the NHMH was part of the efforts in creating awareness about the same,” said Naqvi.

The four galleries of the museum were curated with the objective of telling a story with the environment in mind. Naqvi proudly recalled creating a project very dear to him on soil conservation. It consisted of a large tree with roots going deep into the soil. On it was written in big bold letters, “the six inches of humus takes millions of years to form”. “The message was that soil is the most important part of the ecosystem,” Naqvi explained.

From the time of its birth to its last day, the museum held daily film shows and audio visuals on the environment. Conservationist Sharad Gaur, who was part of the WWF India education team, recalled how NMNH reached out to them to produce an audio-visual on Delhi’s dependence and relationship with nature. The project titled ‘Delhi’s debt to nature’, shot by Gaur and produced by the WWF team in the mid-1980s, was screened in one of the theaters inside the museum regularly till about the early 2000s. “It showed how Delhi had grown from its natural origins, particularly the ridge and the Yamuna, and how it continues to be dependent on them and the need to protect them,” recalled Gaur. “It also showed the early effects of urbanisation in Delhi, such as fly ash pollution, which was a big problem in the city in the 1980s and 90s, river degradation, and loss of natural forest.”

Gaur explained that the museum had a unique impact on the social life of Delhi. NMNH was the first natural history museum in India to introduce a discovery room for children’s learning. “There was a small animal area where children could go and interact with harmless animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and the like. That was the first exposure for many young children to handling animals,” said Gaur. He also recalled how visually challenged children were encouraged to touch and hold animal specimens like that of a tiger, tortoise, feel the texture of a crocodile skin or different tree barks. “There is no institution today that is doing work that can replicate these experiences,” he said.

The present director of the museum, Naaz Riz said that even though the museum its physical capacity has not functioned in Delhi since the fire 2016, it has been actively in several awareness campaigns, marches and street plays across NCR. “We did more than 200 programs during the pandemic to sensitise children and we also opened our YouTube channel,” she said. The museum is also active in its four regional branches of Mysore, Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar, and Sawai Madhopur. Their latest exhibition that started out on May 22 in the Mysore branch is themed on the Mahseer fish.

Speaking about the plans for the reestablishment of the NMNH, Rizvi said, “The government of India has already allotted 6.5 acres of land for it. We are working on it and shall announce its progress soon.”

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