Watching it burn

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marking an anniversary and the National Museum of Natural History

I believe it was for Time Out Delhi‘s first “Beat the Heat” issue, in May 2007, that Samar went off to rattle the dusty bones of the National Museum of Natural History. And I have a vague memory of Radhika, on a city-wide hunt for animatronic statues, disappointedly telling Avtar that the dinosaur outside FICCI Auditorium didn’t actually move.

The museum was presumably as desiccated a pile of kindling when it went up in flames the other day as it was back then. Yet in the intervening decade, so much more seems to have changed in Delhi than has remained the same. Since we brought out our inaugural issue, almost exactly nine years ago, from that long-gone corner office in Lajpat Nagar, the magazine’s archives have also vanished, like smoke, and many of its staffers left the city. And our online successors have little space for the decrepit and the derelict amongst reader demands for whatever is of-the-moment and instagrammable.

Such is the state of the erstwhile museum’s political environs these days, that it takes only a short flight of fantasy to imagine the involvement of some burning monkey tail of myth in the conflagration of that stuffed menagerie of (admittedly, antiquated) science. Or perhaps its furry ashes are just the fertilizer needed for the speedy raising up of the planned new Natural History Museum on Bhairon Marg—opposite the grand, expensive convention centre slated to replace Pragati Maidan’s landmark Hall of Nations and Nehru Pavilion.

There, they say, will be ever-more air-conditioning to beat our ever-rising heat. There will be IMAX theatres and interactive, multimedia displays, all of which will inevitably become as outdated as the crackling, faint voice that whispers through the “Hear Gandhi Speak” landline telephones at the National Gandhi Museum down the road.

I suppose Delhi has seen far more drastic changes in its long history than in the last decade that I’ve lived here. Still, it’s impossible not to mourn the loss of the fusty, the musty, and the once-modern. And maybe of a certain illusoriness of nostalgia, replaced by packaged, filtered, pastiche images of the past.

As chroniclers of the city, we surely had our part to play in the changing ways in which people consumed it. But I miss that persistent interest in the abandoned buildings and overgrown amphitheatres, the forgotten ghosts and the neglected museums.

For those who shared that spirit, sharing our 2011 story on Delhi museums that is itself now quite outdated.