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

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


In 1977, Asif Naqvi (68) was on a university trip to New Delhi when he first saw the National Museum of Natural History which was in its final stages of completion. Naqvi was then 24 years old and studying museology at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) after completing his master’s degree in zoology. “Whenever we think of museums, art and culture are the first things that come to mind. But here I was pleasantly surprised to encounter conversations about nature, conservation, evolution, etc. Naqvi said. “The first thought that came to mind was that now we biologists can also dream of being museologists.

After a brief interaction with the museum’s founder-director, SM Nair, Naqvi sat on the lawns of the museum where the iconic dinosaur replica once stood and thought how wonderful it would be to work in a space like this one. “I already had a fascination with Mandi House, being a theater enthusiast. I thought working at the Natural History Museum would suit both my cultural and intellectual interests.

About a year later, and six months after the NMNH opened to the public, Naqvi’s dream came true when he was hired as a museum assistant. “I was the happiest person. I used to work here during the day and do theater in the evening. This is also where I found my passion for the environment,” said Naqvi, who took his retired as Dean of the Faculty of Life Sciences and Chairman of the Department of Museology at AMU.

The idea for a natural history museum had been conceived six years earlier, in 1972, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of India’s independence. The United Nations Conference on Human Development was held in Stockholm, Sweden that year and Indira Gandhi was one of the few country leaders to attend. Back in India, she proposed the construction of a natural history museum in New Delhi.

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

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

Before the establishment of the NMNH, Mandi House was known as the cultural center of Delhi. But after the NMNH, Mandi House has also become 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 used to visit the museum for meetings and exhibitions. “In our canteen and halls, as well as in Triveni and the Sri Ram Center, we would sit and discuss issues affecting the environment,” Naqvi said.

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He said that because of the NMNH, even those who were not environmentalists, such as filmmakers and theater activists, became interested in the environment. A lover of theatre, Naqvi had joined the street theater group Jana Natya Manch, which at the time performed plays on social issues. “But being influenced by NMNH, I have written plays on environmental issues such as the Bhopal gas tragedy, ozone layer depletion, tiger poaching, pollution, etc.”

The 1970s and 1980s were the decades when environmentalism and nature conservation took root in India. Some of the greatest moments in the history of environmental movements in India like Silent Valley Movement, Chipko Movement, Appiko Movement and Narmada Bachao Andolan all started during this period. “The government was also starting to care about environmental issues and the establishment of the NHMH was part of the efforts to raise awareness about this,” Naqvi said.

The museum’s four galleries have been organized with the aim of telling a story with the environment in mind. Naqvi proudly remembers creating a very dear project on soil conservation. It was a large tree whose roots went deep into the ground. Above it was written in big bold letters, “the six inches of humus take millions of years to form”. “The message was that soil is the most important part of the ecosystem,” Naqvi explained.

From its birth until its last day, the museum organized daily film screenings and audiovisuals on the environment. Environmentalist Sharad Gaur, who was part of WWF India’s education team, recalled how the NMNH contacted them to produce an audiovisual on addiction and Delhi’s relationship with nature. The project titled “Delhi’s Debt to Nature”, shot by Gaur and produced by the WWF crew in the mid-1980s, was shown regularly in one of the museum’s theaters until around the early 2000s . “It showed how Delhi had developed from its natural origins, especially the Ridge and the Yamuna, and how it continues to be dependent on them and the need to protect them,” Gaur recalled. “It also showed the early effects of urbanization in Delhi, such as fly ash pollution, which was a big problem in the city in the 1980s and 90s, degradation of rivers and loss of natural forests. “

Gaur explained that the museum had a unique impact on Delhi’s social life. The 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, etc. This was the first time that many young children were exposed to handling animals. animals,” Gaur said. He also recalled how visually impaired children were encouraged to touch and hold animal specimens like a tiger, a turtle, feel the texture of crocodile skin, or of different tree barks.”There is no institution today that does work that can replicate these experiences,” he said.

The current director of the museum, Naaz Rizvi, said that although the museum in its physical capacity has not been operating in Delhi since the 2016 fire, it has been actively carrying out several awareness campaigns, marches and plays in the NCR. “We did over 200 programs during the pandemic to raise awareness among 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 which started on May 22 at the Mysore branch is themed around Mahseer fish.

Speaking about NMNH’s recovery plans, Rizvi said, “Government of India has already allocated 6.5 acres of land for it. We are working on it and will announce its progress soon.