RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

Look Around for the Butterflies!

September is observed as Butterfly Month in India. We have about 1400 species of butterflies–from the 190 mm wingspan Southern Birdwing, to the tiny Grass Jewel with a 15 mm wingspan. And we are yet to discover all the species there are—in the last few years, 77 species have been discovered in just the Matheran Hills near Mumbai.

Citizen-scientists who sight, record and report their findings are critical in any exercise of species monitoring. So here is a list of some popular guides to Indian butterflies which can get you started on your butterfly journey. Who knows, you may discover a new one, or help to expand the understanding of range or behavior! Good luck!

Common Rose Butterfly. Bangalore. August 2020. Photo credit V. Raghunathan
  1. Butterflies of India. Thomas Gay, Isaac Khemikar and JC Puneetha. WWF/Oxford University Press.
  2. A Naturalist’s Guide to the Butterflies of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan,  Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Peter Smetacek.
  3. Identification of Indian Butterflies. J.H. Evans. BNHS.
  4. Butterflies of the Indian Region. MA Wynter-Blyth. BNHS.
  5. Butterflies of India. Arun Pratap Singh. Om Books International.

There are several excellent region-specific guides too, including:

  1. Butterflies of the Western Ghats. H. Gaonkar.
  2. Butterflies of Peninsular India. K. Kunthe, G. Madhav.
  3. Butterflies of Sikkim. Meena Haribal. Nature Conservation Foundation.
  4. Butterflies of Delhi. Peter Smetack. Kalpavriksh.

(Unapologetically non-conforming to  APA or any other referencing  style!)

And a few tips to help butterflies along:

  1. Butterfly gardening is a great way to provide a hospitable environment. Butterflies need different plants for different stages of their life-cycles. So planting a garden with many different types of flowering plants (or having pots with different kinds of plants) is a good first step. On the whole, plants like hibiscus, shankpushpi, sunflower, chrysanthemum, marigold, mint etc. are among those preferred by butterflies.
  2. Wherever you live, see if you can have some small areas which are left wild, with local species of wild plants. This will help butterflies, as these are probably their preferred vegetation.
  3. Stop use of chemical pesticides in your garden. These can cause serious harm to the butterfly  at the various stages of its development.

–Meena

FrogFest

Over 35 years ago, when I spent two years living in Nairobi, my sister Seema, then a young zoology student came to visit. Among the souvenirs she picked up from the local market was a potholder made of cane that was shaped like a frog. After that trip, wherever she went, it was almost as if frogs were jumping out from everywhere, urging to be picked up! Frogs in all materials, shapes, sizes and poses. And so, Seema became a ‘frog collector’! It also made it easy for friends and family to find her a gift. Over the years, the frog artefact collection grew and grew till her house was bursting at the seams with frogs big and small. One day the thought came, how could this be shared with more people, and what would be the purpose of the sharing? Over a couple of years, and a combination of fortuitous circumstances, this idea metamorphosed into FrogFest.

FrogFest began as a brainchild of Seema’s old school friend Aditya Arya whose creative mind has always leapt way ahead of the average plodders and hoppers. Let’s do an exhibition called FrogArt, he said. With his vast experience in photography and exhibit design, he offered to curate the show. That done, it worked out that WWF offered to host the display. This was indeed serendipity! WWF was where Seema began her professional life as a volunteer (while still a college student). What better way to “give back” to an institution that was the first to nurture what became a lifelong passion (as well as vocation) for biodiversity and conservation!

Then came the challenge—how to use the frog artefacts to highlight the larger issues of amphibian conservation; how to creatively bridge the traditional gap between Art and Science? Seema invited me to join the team as co-curator, to apply my experience as an environmental educator. After six months of being steeped in all matters Batrachian (along the way we discovered that the study of frogs was known as Batrachology!) we were ready to launch FrogFest—Celebrating Frogs in Art and Nature.

As the name suggests, FrogFest focuses on the amazingly diverse interpretations of a single element of nature–the frog! It showcases Seema Bhatt’s personal collection of frog artefacts from over 40 countries, including a rendering of frogs in folk art, as well as contemporary art by young artists.

The display of the artefacts and art is supported by a series of panels that highlight the fascinating aspects of frogs, and the conservation significance of frogs in nature. Far from the dusty tomes of academic journals, the visual-rich and reader-friendly panels also offer a peep into the fascinating world of frogs in India and the important initiatives to conserve them.These have been supported and enriched with expert inputs from Dr S.D. Biju and Dr Gururaja, India’s foremost amphibian scientists.

 

The bridge between art and nature is further strengthened by the organisation and display of artefacts. For example, where the panel describes the role of colour in frogs in Nature, there is also a display of nearly a hundred frog artefacts, made from glass, ceramic, clay, stone and more, with vibrant colours, along with a ‘Frogtoid’ that reminds that while artists have let their imagination run riot, nature has bestowed frogs with a colour palette on which their very survival depends (attracting mates, warning predators).

 

With its brilliant interweaving of the facts and fun FrogFest offers a feast for the senses. It also provides food for thought by putting the spotlight on the Frog. At a time when the focus of wildlife conservation is primarily on charismatic ‘megafauna’, there is a dire need to reflect on the conservation of smaller, but equally significant fauna around us. While frogs may not always hit the headlines as the ‘Superstars’ of the grand epic of nature, they are no less fascinating, and indeed, no less important in the Web of Life.

FrogFest is on at WWF India, 172-B Lodi Road, New Delhi till the end of April 2018.

–Mamata