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National museum: looking back 130 years

The Colombo National Museum celebrated its 130th anniversary last week. What began as a collection of antiques in a dilapidated old building that housed the Royal Asiatic Society's (Sri Lanka branch) library has today become one of South Asia's best museums. The credit for establishing it goes to Sir William Henry Gregory, who was the island's British Governor from 1872 to 1877.


National Museum, Colombo.

Looking for more space to keep their books, the RAS library authorities were trying to get rid of the old animal bones and other antiques in the building, when Sir William got wind of it. The Governor - a scholar of repute - realized the urgent need for establishing a museum and made the proposal to the Constitutional Assembly on September 25, 1872.

Despite financial constraints, Sir William eventually succeeded establishing the museum in a massive two storeyed building in Colombo 7 on January 1, 1877. The building was designed by the then Government Architect, James C. Smithers, while the contractors were S.M. Perera and W. Marikkar. Then known as the Colombo Museum, its early administrators were all Europeans.

The first Museum Director was Dr. A. Halley, who was assisted by a librarian and a taxidermist. At the beginning, the museum's collection of antiques was only 808 items and 384 models. Dr. Halley raised the museum publication `Spolia Ceylanica' and added a laboratory - among other facilities - to the building during his eight years of service. Among the other prominent Directors was Dr. J. Pearson, who held the post from 1910-1933. Pearson held a museum exhibition to educate the public and drew the attention of scholars to the items. The research publications that appeared during Pearson's term were highly acclaimed. He also made a major contribution to the museum's zoology branch.

The museum's first Sri Lankan Director was Dr. P.E.P. Deraniyagala, whose term in office was one of the finest periods in the institution's history. Incorporated under a Museum Act in 1942, its services expanded during his time, with branches coming up in Kandy, Jaffna and Ratnapura. Subsequently, the name was changed from Colombo Museum to National Museum.

Apart from administration work and improving the building, Dr. Deraniyagala was also engaged in highly important research work and gave priority to pre-historic excavations. His period of service, which ended in 1963, saw the publication of around 400 works related to archaeological research.

Dr. Deraniyagala was succeeded by two administrative service officers, Dr. Ananda Guruge ands N.B.M. Seneviratne.

The museum's most prized possession, the throne of King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe - is linked to an amusing incident involving a person of unsound mind. The man was among the visitors to the museum, several decades ago. Noticing that the glass enclosure was pen, he suddenly went in sat on the throne, claiming that he was its rightful heir. He refused to budge from it until the police forcibly removed him before packing him off to the Angoda mental asylum.

On October 1965, Dr. P.H.D.H. de Silva became the Director heralding in a new era in museum history. Dr. De Silva's first task was to exhibit all items, according to classification, thereby giving a better knowledge. He organized seminars and issued publications to educate school children and the general public. The museum publication `Singithi' was especially meant for children.

Dr. De Silva also took steps to install an alarm system to provide security for the Kandyan throne. The Anuradhapura Rural Museum and Zoology Branch are among Dr. Silva's other achievements.

Having visited 22 countries to gather information on antiques and archaeological treasures taken from Sri Lanka, he published a giant catalogue of all such items belonging to this country. These include intricately carved cannon on wheels on display at the Amsterdam Museum. This artillery piece belonged to Leuke Dissawe of Kandy. (A miniature model of this gun is on display at the National Museum, Colombo).

When the Museum celebrated its centenary in 1977, it had 93,647 antiques and archaeological treasures and 2603 anthropological models, according to Dr. De Silva's reports. In addition, the number of coins had risen from 499 (in 1877) to 83,405 while the number of books and other publications had risen to over 500,000.

The first woman to head the museum was Dr. Thelma Gunawardena who was promoted from Senior Assistant Director to Director in 1982. She was also the first woman to head a museum anywhere in the world. She was instrumental in upgrading the museum building to make it serve the purpose of displaying and protecting items much more effectively. The exhibition of `Heritage of Bronze Sculpture - opened at the Museum in 1995 - displays ancient Sri Lanka's superior works of art and is an invaluable source of knowledge and inspiration to scholars and the general public alike.

The National Museum also houses Sri Lanka's biggest library. Sinhala publications were introduced to it under the Printers and Publishers Ordinance in 1885. Under this law, the government was - and still is obliged to send to the museum library a copy of every publication printed in the country, barring newspapers.

Few other libraries in the country take better care of its collection. It has a fumigating chamber, which can hold 500 books at a time. There, the books are treated with thymol, which vaporizes and destroys insects in badly damaged books. Today, the library has around 700,000 books, a valuable collection of stamps (practically every stamp issued here since 1900 AD), photographs and collections of sketches and paintings. In addition, the library has a superb collection of about 4,000 palm leaf manuscripts - a large number of which were donated by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. The oldest surviving palm leaf manuscript, `Chulawansa' is 750 years old.

Former Health Minister and Museum Management Advisory Committee Member W.A. de Silva donated 1226 manuscripts. He also compiled volume 1 of the first palm leaf manuscript catalogue. The collection of Sri Lanka's first Archaeological Commissioner H.C.P. Bell had to be purchased.

Among the old publications in the museum library is the first book printed in Sinhala. It is a Protestant prayer book printed in 1737, during the Dutch occupation of the Maritime Provinces. The publication bears the Dutch East India Company's VOC symbol on its cover. A Rs. 10 million project was launched seven years ago to protect and preserve the ancient manuscripts and to do further research on them.

Today, the museum has been fully geared to meet the needs of research workers, students and the general public. A significant feature in this modernization is the audio visual section and a lecture hall. The AV section is used for screening films of cultural and scientific importance. Arrangements have been made even for disabled persons to make use of the museum's facilities.

The museum management hopes to expand its publicity programs in the coming months and years.

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