A national museum is truly a mirror of a country’s historical, cultural and biological heritage as well as a place where a country’s pride is enshrined. A national museum educates people about their past heritage while awakening feelings about their country. It is the story of the National Museum of Colombo that brings the proud history of Sri Lanka closer to the next generation.
Sir William Henry Gregory of the United Kingdom (UK) took office as Governor of Ceylon on March 4, 1872. He was a keen observer of museums during his time in the UK. Due to his extensive knowledge of the works of art, even the British Museum had collaborated with him at the time.
Arriving in Ceylon for a five-year term, he was shocked by the cultural heritage that was hiding in the ruins at that time. He suggested to the British government that a museum be built to preserve Ceylon’s dying history, but the government initially rejected the proposal, citing the huge sum of money involved. Undeterred, the governor continued to use his connections to seek approval for the construction of a museum.
It was not until 1874 that the British government finally approved his proposal and approved the construction of Ceylon’s first national museum. Accordingly, the government architect designed the base building of the museum according to Italian architecture and the contract for its construction was awarded to Wapchi Marikkar, who built the Colombo Post Office, the Old City Hall from Pettah and the Galle Face Hotel. All its carpentry was entrusted to SM Perera.
After two years, the Colombo Museum was completed as a two-story building with ornate towers, arches and open porches. It was opened to the public on January 1, 1877, with 808 artifacts and 384 other specimens. Objects included inscriptions, various stone carvings, items such as jewelry, coins, and natural science replicas such as mammals, reptiles, fish, shells, corals, and minerals. Dr. Amarald Haley was the first director of the museum. He held this position until his retirement in April 1891.
Under the direction of Dr. Arthur Wiley and Dr. Joseph Pearson, who succeeded Dr. Haley as director of the museum, several new compartments were added to the East and West Museum. Dr. Pearson also started a magazine called “Spolia Zeylanica” to publish articles about research at the museum. At the same time, a bronze statue of Sir William Henry Gregory was erected in front of the museum in thanks for his immense service in donating a museum to Ceylon.
After Dr. Pearson, AHS Malpas became the director of the Colombo Museum. He was the last British National Director of the Colombo Museum. After his tenure, Dr. PEP Deraniyagala was appointed to this position, ushering in a golden age for the Colombo Museum.
At his request, the Colombo Museum was designated as a national museum by the Museum Law No. 31 of 1942, and branches were opened in Jaffna, Kandy and Ratnapura. It was at this time that the British government agreed to return to the government of Ceylon the jewels and throne of King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe kept in the British Museum.
Since then, the National Museum of Colombo, which has been developed under various directors, now has nine branches. It also has 16 exhibition stands where antiques belonging to ancient eras are kept. Another valuable feature of the national museum is its library.
Opened together with the museum, it contains a number of ancient books written on Ceylon and houses a copy of every book printed in the country since 1885. There are also pamphlet books from the pre-Christian era, a Pali version of the Mahavamsa and a brochure books donated by the King of Burma. Lately, various collections of prominent books have been donated to him and among them are the collections of HCP Bell, Henry Blake and Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike.