City Wrap Specials: What a natural history museum stands for

A museum of natural history is a testament to human curiosity about the world around us, long before the world was termed ‘natural’ and the past was termed ‘history’


On Tuesday, a fire destroyed the National Museum of Natural History and parts of the FICCI auditorium in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
On Tuesday, a fire destroyed the National Museum of Natural History and parts of the FICCI auditorium in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

The Mint City Wrap is a curation of the most compelling stories emerging from our cities today. While the focus is on urban centres, the Mint City Wrap engages with wider geographies in the effort to connect stories with each other across places and borders.

The City Wrap Specials are occasional issues that are concerned with a particular theme. These issues draw upon literature, poetry, music, film, food and sundry Internet fodder to illustrate an overall point or the lack thereof. The Wrap Specials are a dedicated and wilful break from breaking news, grim academic reports, sea level rise, and other things that might be pointing towards the apocalypse. But why such a thing at all, one could ask. Well, for the pleasure of a contemplative torpor, for a light, unfettered laugh, and above all, for the compassion and commiseration that only stories are capable of bringing out.

The emotional geography of a natural history museum

We lost the National Museum of Natural History. What did we lose? A museum? Natural History? National Memory?

On Tuesday, a fire destroyed the National Museum of Natural History and parts of the FICCI auditorium in New Delhi. The extent of damage is not adequately known, though most reports speculate that the exhibits are irreparably gutted . Social media featured outbursts of nostalgia , because a museum, like schools, zoos and planetariums, are part of the places that we associate with childhood. It is inextricably linked to the places where we learned about the world around us, about our place in the landscape of nature across time. A few Twitter reactions also featured an emotionless shrug about mourning a museum of mouldy objects when there are far more important issues that need reckoning. But a greater proportion of the reactions focused on the ‘value’ of the objects inside the museum as opposed to the museum itself. By their logic, the museum is the sum of the valuable objects within it. The loss of the museum is expressed through the loss of artefacts, each of which has a perceived value.

Is a bone not just a bone? Is the bone special merely by dint of age, special lighting and an arcane label? What is this value we speak of?

For that, we need to return to the first set of tweeters, who associated with museums with landscapes of childhood and learning. Not because we are nostalgic and sentimental beings who mourn the things we lose, but because we are, above all, curious beings. A museum of natural history is a testament to human curiosity about the world around us, long before the world was termed “natural” and the past was termed “history”. It is part of that early wonder of encounter, the struggle to represent that wonder to another, and the desire to express what we know through a common language.

Is a natural history museum just a sum of its parts?

Museums are associated with the nation-building project through its representation of collective meanings and memories. But a museum is also a cultural practice that is founded on the principle of ordering and classifying objects and weaving them into an external, overarching narrative. The museum is designed in such a way that the exhibits will disclose the narrative to the public. It is a space that tells you a story. A museum could be static, like the one we lost to the fire, or it could be diffused across a place, like Chernobyl in the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. But each object within the museum is a character in an overall story the museum has been constructed to tell. A bone is not just a bone, it is a footnote, it is a paragraph, it is the page-turner.

But let’s also interrogate this strange creature called “natural history”. Michel Foucault, in his book The Order of Things writes with baffling simplicity that “natural history is nothing but the nomination of the visible”. To make things “visible” to represent them as a “system of identities” with “orders of difference”, and to use language systematically, brought about the science of taxonomy. The roots of the natural history museum lie in something much more interesting and cruel—that of the freak show. Foucault writes: “To the Renaissance, the strangeness of animals was a spectacle: it was featured in fairs, in tournaments, in fictitious or real combats, in reconstitutions of legends in which the bestiary displayed its ageless fables. The natural history room and the garden replace the circular procession of the ‘show’ with the arrangement of the things in a ‘table’. What came surreptitiously into being between the age of the theatre and that of the catalogue [...] was a new way of connecting things both to the eye and to discourse. A new way of making history.”

The museum of natural history is the effort of historians of the 19th century to create a history that could at last be “true”, absolved of myth and flights of fancy.

As a historian, would you believe in the platypus?

In 1799, biologist George Shaw encountered the platypus and was sure he was the subject of some prank. A platypus, by every stretch of reason, was a ridiculous idea. As an organism, it defied classification. The body of a cat, the beak of a duck, the webbed and clawed feet of a mild sea-monster, the tail of a beaver, and eggs! Oh my god, it lays eggs! But over a period of 90 years, biologists took up the challenge the platypus posed and was finally classified as a mammal known to lay eggs, in the order of ‘Monotremata’. But frankly, that tells you less about the platypus than about the indefatigable human urge to make sense of what surrounds us, and our place in it.

By the way, do you know where George Shaw’s platypus is? In a natural history museum .

The things we lost in the fire

The National Museum of Natural History told us a larger story through little objects. I could be wrong, but it was never about the objects, but about the story the museum stood for: “We were here on this planet. This is what we saw over the years. This is how we made sense of it.”