National Museum: Window into the past | Sunday Observer

National Museum: Window into the past

25 February, 2018

Sir William Henry Gregory who was appointed as the fourteenth Governor of Ceylon in 1872 had an idea of building a museum in Colombo. He appreciated the ancient values and national legacy of Ceylon and he explained to the rulers in England the importance of a Museum. In his first address to the Legislative Council in 1872, Governor Gregory proposed the construction of a Museum. However, at that stage the Legislative Council did not approve the proposal and the building of the Museum was delayed. He continued his efforts and the approval for establishment of public Museum was obtained within a year.

Assistant Director of the National Archives, Dilini Liyanage says, “Governor Gregory chose a suitable land in the Colombo city, and then looked for a skilled architect to build the Museum. At that time, the top-level architects worked at the Department of Public Works, when many other buildings in Colombo were built by the Public Works Department. James Smither was an expert architect in the Department of Public Works and Governor Gregory told him to draw a plan for the building of a Museum. An architectural plan for the Museum was drawn by J.G. Smither. The construction of the Museum which commenced in 1874 was carried out mainly by S. M. Perera. It was completed in 1876 and the Museum was opened on January 1, 1877. Governor Gregory provided much assistance during the construction, and a statue of him was built in front of the museum to honour him as the founder.”

Liyanage explains the functions of the Directors of the Museum since 1877. “The first Director, Amyrald Haly started the Museum with a collection of 1,192 items. After Haly’s departure in April 1901, J. B. Spence took up the duties of Acting Director and when he left in March 1902, these duties were fulfilled by A. J. Chalmers, until Arthur Willey’s arrival in May 1902. He took leave in the early years, because he suffered from attacks of fever, and assumed duties as Acting Director between 1906 and 1907. Arthur Willey resigned his dual office of Director of the Colombo Museum and Government Marine Biologist on June 1 1910 and was succeeded by Joseph Pearson who retired on March 2, 1933, and Pearson was succeeded by A. H. Malpas who retired in March 1939.”

P. E. P. Deraniyagala became the first Sri Lankan Director in 1939, and according to Ordinance No 31 of 1942, he declared Colombo Museum as the National Museum. Dr. Deraniyagala retired in 1963 and was succeeded by two officers, namely, N. B. M. Seneviratne (from August 1963 to January 1965) and Ananda Guruge (from Feb. 1965 to Sep. 1965). They belonged to the Ceylon Administrative Service. Guruge was succeeded by P. H. D. H. De Silvain 1965. Thelma Gunawardena (1982-1994), Sirinimal Lakdusinghe (1994-1999), Yasantha Mapatuna (1999-2001), Nanda Wickramasinghe (2001-2013), and Sanuja Kasthuriarachchi (2013 to-date).”

The purpose of establishing the Museum was to collect, preserve, interpret and display items of artistic, cultural and scientific significance for the education of the public. The British administrators established their own forms of architecture in Ceylon and during British times the significance of the museum was quite different. Liyanage explains, “After we received independence the functions of the Museum has changed, and every effort has been taken to provide a useful educational service to schoolchildren. The Museum is now connected with the electronic era, and is open to the public with a modern look into the past.”

Liyanage further says, “A plan for the extension of the Museum dated February 1 1890 was forwarded to the Director of the Public Works Department, and accordingly, from 1890, there were discussions to extend this building and the plan was being prepared for this. A proposal for the extension of the Museum had been made to the Government and the Museum Committee for many years. Governor Sir Henry Blake appointed a special committee to consider a report on the question of increasing the present accommodation at the Museum. The foundation of the east wing of the projected museum extension was laid in June 1907. The new wing of the Museum was finally completed on May 1, 1909. Over the years, the Museum has expanded and new wings made from time to time under the direction of the Directors. All the extensions followed closely the architectural style of the first building.”

While travelling around the island one can see influences from both European and Asian style architecture and many important historical buildings were built by the colonial governments. These were often built in a European architectural style that was in fashion at the time. Liyanage says, “The Colombo Museum was built in Italian architecture style with arrangements of large columns, pillars and lintels as well as the use of semicircular arches. This building was one of the most famous buildings in the Colombo city, and it has two floors with several courtyards and a grand staircase leading to the upper floor.”

The National Museum is maintained by the Department of National Museums and while Portuguese buildings are perhaps less noticeable in Colombo, an abundance of Dutch and British buildings still remains.

Students, local and foreign tourists, researchers and the public visit the National Museum. Liyanage says, “According to the Administration Report of the Director of the Colombo Museum in 1895, the number of visitors amounted to 113,339 which was the highest recorded since the opening of this building. Sri Lanka has a long history and this museum is a testimony to our proud history.

The National Museum is the largest museum in Sri Lanka and contains collections of great importance. These collections are also a good source of research, especially, for people who study history as they provide useful information for researchers.

Photos of the National Museum can be found in the Times Collection and publications such as, The Ceylon Gazette and Hansard. The Reports of the Directors of National Museum which included in the Ceylon Administration Reports provide additional information.

Dilini Liyanage is the Assistant Director, Department of National Archives, Visiting Lecturer, Department of Library Science and Information, University of Kelaniya and Visiting Lecturer, Records Management, FRAG Institute.