New Delhi: A massive fire that gutted the building of National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) Monday night caused tremendous loss of material of historical and heritage value.
The fire brigade team that has been working since Monday night said the enormity of fire was so severe that it engulfed the large collection of taxidermic animals, birds and other items on display besides the office furniture, wooden flooring and documents in all the five floors of the museum situated next to FICCI-KK Birla Auditorium on Tansen Road near Mandi House.
Entry has been banned for all except fire tenders, police and officials inspecting the damaged building. Due to heavy smoke all floors of the museum turned virtually black. It took nearly 30 fire tenders to douse the fire.
Severe loss to collections of historical value
“The damage is immense. It can’t be judged in terms of money because the collections which have turned into ashes have a high historical and heritage value. Minister of Environment and Forests Prakash Javdekar visited in the morning and has ordered a probe. Assessment would be made following an inquiry. It’s too early to comment on anything. We’re also trying to find out the cause of the fire breakup,” an official of NMNH said on condition of anonymity.
The Museum was planned as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations for India's independence, and finally opened on 5 June 1978. From being a single museum located in New Delhi, NMNH extended its geographical range by establishing Regional Museums of Natural History (RMNH) in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar. Two more museums are being established in Sawai Madhopur and in Gangtok.
NMNH and RMNHs focus on India's flora and fauna and are also committed to environmental education. Besides having a large collection of stuffed animals and birds, both the national and regional museums showcase the rich diversity of India’s tribal life.
Art critic Uma Nair said, “It’s a big loss in terms of historical and heritage value of collections that got damaged by fire. It’s a very sad state of affair and the loss is irreparable. The most unfortunate part is that in India we need museum and institution buildings like those abroad, but when it comes to safety measures and maintenance, we fail.”
What could have been the cause?
Everyone is tight-lipped at the moment, as the fire fighters are busy clearing five floors till 3 pm on Tuesday. Both, the museum administration and fire brigade personnel termed it too early to comment anything on the cause of fire breakup.
“It’s a major inferno. It’s too early to say anything about the cause of fire. The possible reason could be from short-circuit,” a fire tender operator on job remarked.
Stating the incident “very tragic”, Prakash Javdekar has ordered an energy and fire audit of all the establishments across the country. “We have 34 museums and we’ll ensure that such incidents don’t happen,” the minister said.
Beside wooden furniture, the museum also had wooden décor, flooring and panels — all of which has been gutted by fire.
“The level of preparedness and maintenance is poor in large number of cases. There’s a lack of periodical review of disaster management, which is must for institutions like NMNH which has heritage value,” said Uma Nair.
“It’s a known fact that museums do have volatile and inflammable contents. Forget fire, even smoke and water can cause immense damage to collectibles, especially when they have heritage value,” she said.
The fire broke at 1.45 am on the top floor of the museum. By the time security guard alerted fire brigade, police, NMNH and FICCI officials, and fire tenders swung into operation, the fire had already caused havoc and engulfed all the floors.
“The fire safety systems were there but they were not functioning at the time when we tried to operate them. Had they been working, it would have been easier to control the fire at the earliest,” Deputy Fire Chief Rajesh Panwar reportedly told agency.
The NMNH is housed in the rented accommodation on the five floors of the building belonging to FICCI. Next to the museum building is FICCI’s auditorium and the Federation House.
Though the top five floors have been gutted by the fire, no damage has been caused to the FICCI office on the first floor of the museum building, adjoining KK Birla auditorium and the Federation House.
FICCI’s secretary general, Dr A Didar Singh tweeted: “Yes unfortunate fire incident in Museum building in FICCI premises. FICCI office and auditorium are okay. None hurt.”
The industry body FICCI’s media head, Rajiv Tyagi told Firstpost, “The safety and security standards at FICCI are of the highest order, because we receive dignitaries and personalities from India and abroad, including our Prime Minister. We can’t fault on safety and security. Besides our fire-fighting equipment, we have underground water reservoir of 1.5 lakh litre and 50,000 litre additional water reservoir for this kind of emergency. In this case, we supplied water to douse fire. FICCI has given the space on rent to NMNH and as per the contract, the responsibility of maintenance and security of the museum lies with them.”
Nair added, “It needs to be found out whether the museum had early fire detection system like Titanus that alerts a fire break much faster and at an initial phase, when it can be controlled. Besides, Oxy-reduction fire prevention safety measure is a must for museums, as it stops fire from spreading. Surprisingly, these systems lack in many of our premier institutions of national importance.”