The National Museum of Colombo – or to give it its more grandiose title, the Sri Lanka National Museum – is not the biggest or most lavish museum I’ve been in, but it’s efficient enough if you’re looking for something in Colombo to occupy you for a few hours and if you want to learn a little about Sri Lanka’s history and culture over the last 3000 years. Also, it plays an important role in a capital city where museums of any sort are scarce. As the Colombo leisure and entertainment website www.yamu.lk says of it: “In terms of a functioning museum that actually makes an attempt to convey and display the history of this ancient island, there is only one but, actually, it’s enough.”
The National Museum was opened at the beginning of 1877 by Sir William Gregory, the British Governor of what was then Ceylon, after he’d been petitioned for several years by the Royal Asiatic Society. The museum was, and still is, contained in a large white building that’s more Italian than British-colonial in architectural style. This was the work of the builder Arasi Marikar Wapchie Marikar, who was responsible for a good number of historic buildings still standing in Colombo, such as the General Post Office, the Galle Face Hotel, the Clock Tower, the Customs Building, the Victoria Arcade and the Old Town Hall in Pettah. It’s said that Arasi Marikar Wapchie Marikar, who was a Muslim, requested that the museum be closed on Fridays, the Islamic holy day. The authorities honoured his wish for many years afterwards, although this seems to be no longer the case – according to the museum website it’s now open from 9.00 to 18.00 seven days a week, except on public holidays.
The museum building still looks very handsome, although when I wandered a little off-course, away from the displays and into a non-exhibiting part of the structure, I noticed water damage on the outside walls that’d been caused by leakages from the roof.
At the time that I visited, the upper floor of the sizeable exhibition area behind the entrance lobby was closed for refurbishment, which probably meant there was a lot I didn’t see. Nonetheless, there was plenty still on view about such important components of Sri Lanka’s history as the Anuradhapura Kingdom (from 377 BC to 1017 AD), the Polonnaruwa Kingdom (from the 8th century to 1310) and the Kingdom of Kandy (from 1469 to 1815); displays of tools, utensils, furniture, weapons, carvings, sculptures, statues and paintings, augmented by written presentations, mock-ups and models. Mind you, despite the presence of an elaborate working model, I’m still not sure how the Anuradhapura Kingdom’s irrigation system operated. But maybe that’s just because I’m a bit stupid.
As for my favourite things in the museum… Well, for a start, there are these intricate items carved out of ivory, which are gorgeous to look at so long as you can steer your conscience away from the thought of the elephants sacrificed to make them.
Then there are these giant bronze Bodhisattva sandals from the 9th century. If you’re familiar with the legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and you remember the ‘Big Banana Feet’ boots he wore onstage back in the 1970s, you’ll probably – as I did – immediately think of them as ‘Big Buddha Feet’.
And I was quite taken by this elaborately carved, crescent-shaped slab of stone, which back in antiquity formed the threshold-cum-ornamental-doormat for some grand building.
Further into the museum, the galleries upstairs were open and there I found a display of paintings. Unfortunately, my entry into this section coincided with an influx – a seemingly endless influx – of children on a school excursion. Thus, I wasn’t able to give the artwork my full attention because I was buffeted by what seemed to be an ocean of Sri Lankan school-kids, most of whom were keen to try out their English on me. I did manage, however, to snap a few pictures of the paintings I particularly liked. Inevitably, those paintings tended to be the more ghoulish ones.
Finally, out on one of the verandas is a collection of things I haven’t often seen in a museum. Their absence from most of the world’s museums is puzzling, considering that they meet a basic human need that everybody succumbs to regularly. On display here are several historical stone urinals. And I found it refreshing that the National Museum of Colombo acknowledged that during history, yes, people had to go to the toilet sometimes.
Finally, the museum stands in some impressive grounds too. The path leading from the gate to the entrance portico takes you past a humungous, rather mutant-looking banyan tree. The shade of the tree would make a good place to sit down and read a book – if you feel sure that those dangling tentacle-like vines won’t suddenly grab you and snatch you away.