History & Culture

A museum within a museum

The Gass Forest Museum at the TNFA campus houses a rich collection of forestry artefacts. Photo: K. Ananthan

The Gass Forest Museum at the TNFA campus houses a rich collection of forestry artefacts. Photo: K. Ananthan   | Photo Credit: K_Ananthan

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The Gass Forest Museum located within the 100-year-old TNFA has many stories to tell.

Sixty-five million years ago, a trillion-tonne asteroid rammed into Earth with a force one billion times stronger than Hiroshima’s Little Boy. It wiped out half of all species then existent, including dinosaurs. However, a snail shell survived to tell Coimbatoreans the tale. Placed between bottled snakes and a cross-section of rosewood 450 years old, this specimen occupies an insignificant spot within a glass case on the floor of the Gass Forest Museum (GFM). The museum currently hosts 10,000 such artefacts.

GFM is on Cowley Brown Road, nestled within the forest campus of Tamil Nadu Forest Academy, which celebrated its centenary last week. However, its collection has been curated over the last 110 years. “The colonists had the license to loot our land but some chose to be fascinated by it. Conservator of Forests-Coimbatore circle, Horace Archibald Gass was one such man,” says curator P. Chandrasekaran.

In 1902, Horace used his verandas and a room above his office to showcase the interesting odds and ends he had picked up throughout India’s forests. By 1906, the collection, with 358 exhibits, had outgrown this space and was transferred to the current structure built specifically for it. “This red stone building is one of Coimbatore’s oldest and is designed to withstand earthquakes. So it really is a museum within a museum,” says Chandrasekaran.

The current collection has changed many hands since Horace and even survived an auction of its exhibits - done to create space for refugees housed in GFM during World War II. Today, it hosts South India’s largest collection of forestry artefacts including timber and non-timber forest produce, geological samples, tribal armaments and ornaments, entomological specimens and forest engineering models.

Each artefact has a story of acquisition to narrate. For instance, the 14-month and four-month elephant foetuses at the museum were gifted by renowned ‘elephant doctor’ V. Krishnamurthy, world-famous for having performed the highest number of elephant post-mortems. Framed by the doorposts of GFM, a 1,000-kg stuffed gaur (Indian bison) from the Biligiri hills, greets you before you enter the building. It was presented in 1956 by Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the last Maharaja of the princely state of Mysore. The gaur is accompanied by various other stuffed animals and birds including a brahminy kite capturing a chick.

“The museum is a storehouse of that which is ancient and forgotten so the collection hasn’t grown much in the recent past,” says Chandrasekaran. Despite being 50 years old, the gaur is among the more recent stuffed acquisitions of the museum since hunting was banned by the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. Most stuffed creatures are captures of the British in the early half of the 20th Century. “The practice of taxidermy — curing, stuffing and arranging animal skins for display — was perfected by them. So much so, that often, one cannot even tell where the animal has been stitched together after stuffing. When done well, the artefact lasts for decades and we only have to maintain it,” says museum guide, B. Sunita pointing to a stuffed albino crow, posing beside it more common cousin, their beaks and claws waxed to a reflecting shine.

The wildlife artefacts are disturbed only to polish, periodically change formalin and maintain moisture content. However, the seeds, soils and fungi collections are updated even on a monthly basis. “We share many exhibits with the Forest Research Institute museum in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. These exchanges are mostly weather dependant. So we send exhibits there if they are unduly affected by weather here and vice versa,” says Chandrasekaran. Each artefact is extensively catalogued so that GFM can keep track of what it’s acquired or borrowed from whom and when. Stuffed creatures are labelled with their characteristics, habits and habitats as well, bringing even extinct species alive.

Despite being a niche forestry museum, GFM hosts over 25,000 visitors a year. For specialists, the entomology collection with over a 1,000 insects, particularly butterflies, and the geology section with samples from 135 nations are treasures for repeated visits. For the uninitiated, however, these parts of the museum may seem inaccessible beyond cursory admiration. As agriculture students mulled for hours over timber samples titled ‘The Comparative Durability To Decay Of Indian Timbers’, it was tempting to say a piece of wood, is a piece of wood, is a piece of wood. Meanwhile, schools students roared back at a stuffed leopard, shook trunks with an elephant skeleton and hissed at python skins hanging on pillars. Chandrasekaran is right when he says, “We have something for everyone”.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 10:16:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/a-museum-within-a-museum/article3620480.ece

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