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
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
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
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
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.