02 January, 2000

Colombo National Museum celebrates 123rd anniversary

by Ranjith Hewage (Colombo National Museum)

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A view of the Colombo National Museum

The Colombo National Museum was founded on 1st January 1877 as a result of the interest evinced in the study of antiquities that prevailed throughout the world in the 19th century.

The museum was constructed on a proposal made by the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society to the then Governor Sir William Henry Gregory. James Smither, the Architect of the Public Works Department was commissioned to plan and design the building according to the classical Italian architectural tradition.

However, the concept of museums is not a strange thing to Sri Lankans. As stated in the Mahavansa the Sri Lankans had paid attention to the antiques even in the 3rd century BC. It is stated that a few parts of the ship, which brought a branch of the Sri Maha Bodhi by Sangamitta therini, had been protected, deposited and displayed in Anuradhapura. Accordingly it is obvious that the Sri Lankans had engaged in displaying antiques long before the modern museums came into existence.

At the time of inauguration, the Colombo National Museum had a collection of about eight hundred antiques. By about 1977 it could be seen that there was a rapid progress in the collection of valuable illustrations of cultural and natural heritage of Sri Lanka. The number of antiques deposited in the museum now exceeds over one hundred thousand. As there was a rapid development in the collection of antiques in both cultural and natural sections it showed the requirement of a separate museum to deposit the illustrations of natural history.

Therefore, the museum of natural history too was established in the same premises of the Colombo National Museum. This gives visitors an opportunity to watch the cultural heritage as well as the natural heritage under one roof.

Although there are sufficient number of museums with numerous objectives, the Colombo National Museum is the only museum, which has received special attention of the people. The main reason for this is the valuable collection of antiques. They occupy a prominent position among the other museums in South-east Asia. Therefore, foreign and local visitors are anxious to visit the Colombo National Museum. The splendid cultural creations deposited in the Colombo National Museum are well-known throughout the world.

A special reference should be made to the collection of wonderful creations of stone sculpture in Sri Lanka. The valuable rock inscriptions, which show the evolution of the BRAHMI letters to modern Sinhala letters, guard stones, moonstones, carved stone plaques and stone pillars, which could be treated as unique creations of the stone sculpture in Sri Lanka are being displayed here. Also displayed here are a large quantity of copies of valuable paintings pertaining to the traditional art of Sri Lanka. Among them there are paintings belonged to the traditional art of Sigiriya, Hindagala, Polonnaruwa and Kandy as well. It gives a good knowledge about the development of art in Sri Lanka from Anuradhapura period to Kandy period.

There is a vast quantity of coins in the Colombo National Museum, which had been used from B.C. The collection of these coins exceeds over one hundred thousand.

The visitors could see the Throne, Sword, Crown, Royal baton and foot stool used by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, which depict the prosperity of the Kandy period. It is being displayed here with antiques like KOLAM and masks connected with the traditional dancing and a large quantity of musical instruments. Described above is only a small quantity of antiques displayed in this museum.

The exhibition named "Heritage of Bronze Sculpture in Sri Lanka" was opened in 1995 by the Colombo National Museum. It includes a vast number of superior art works connected with the ancient culture of Sri Lanka, which should be viewed by all citizens. Those antiques brought to Sri Lanka after displaying in many foreign countries; the organisers had used all efforts to display them in the same manner as they had been displayed in foreign countries. Local and foreign visitors and cities commended this exhibition as well.

In the collection of palm leaf manuscripts is included the Chullavagga the oldest palm leaf manuscript in Sri Lanka.

The museum library is specially meant for conducting research and it is our bounden duty to conserve and protect the books for the use of future generations. Her Excellency the President has made a grant of Rs. Ten million for this project.

The project is implemented under the supervision of Hon. Lakshman Jayakody, Minister of Cultural and Religions Affairs and Minister of Buddha Sasana and Hon. Prof. A. V. Suraweera, Deputy Minister of Cultural and Religious Affairs. The Colombo National Museum does a great service to propagate Sri Lanka's cultural heritage in foreign countries. As a research institute the Colombo National Museum is engaged in the wider task of making explorations very often on subjects like prehistory, ethnology, and anthropology, culture and ancient crafts. In association with these researches, literary books are published on a national level as well as on an international level.

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