A Treasure Trove within a Magnificent Colonial Building

Ishara Jayawardane in Daily News, 12 October 2017, where the title is Magnificent historical haven”

Located at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha the National Museum is a majestic construction that is a familiar site to those in Colombo. With a long history, it is one of the most famous of the old Colonial buildings in the country. The Daily News spoke to Archt. Ismeth Raheem on the National Museum where he shared some known insights of the construction of the National Museum.

Raheem highlighted some material from one of his books on architecture of this massive building. “The Colombo Museum Complex provided the public whether Briton, Ceylonese middle class or hoi polloi with an important cultural facility. It was set out majestically on 12 acre garden in a prestigious site in Edinburgh Crescent (presently Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha) and set the tone and scale for many of the civic buildings at the time. Its Architect at the time was James G. Smithers (1833- 1910) who was the Chief Government Architect from 1867 – 1883. His Designs encompassed a remarkable range of styles which varied in complexity and scale from residential bungalows to larger civil buildings,” he said.

The Colombo Museum Complex was his most outstanding work and stands as one of the finest achievements in 19th century Colonial Architecture in South East Asia. The two floor building is ingeniously designed around several courtyards which provide ventilation, a necessity in a tropical climate particularly before the advent of electrical or mechanically aided ventilation.

This elegant structure is effectively enclosed by an arcaded verandah protecting the building against the harsh monsoon rains and glare. The Verandahs not only provide a functional and practical space, but also aesthetically enhance the buildings appearance.

“The focal feature is the portico from which the building is approached by a flight of steps leading into the entrance lobby lined with Ionic columns. Beyond the lobby is the grand staircase leading to the upper floor exhibition halls. The shallow pitched roof is effectively concealed by a parapet balustrade heightened by pediments over the entrances. The interior including the floor and ceiling is exquisitely finished and fitted with local wood” Raheem said.

Raheem also pointed out that the original purpose was for it to be a scientific, historic and anthropological artifact museum like the British Museum. It encompassed everything. The original purpose of the museum 100 years ago was just a collection of artifacts. It also features the regalia of the country, including the throne and crown of the Kandyan monarchs.

“The whole Museum idea must have been around three to four years old. It was opened in 1877, but any big idea like establishing a museum involved curators, specimens, equipment, space and staff. So it must have taken around three to four years. The contractor has to be paid, then you have to consider the lighting and you need to consider who will staff the museum. Then you need to advertise to get the staff. You can’t hire just anyone. The salary scale has to be set. It is a huge task. I don’t know exactly how long it took for the above to be in place but it was opened in 1877. Those days it was manned by scientists and zoologists such as Dr. Arthur Willey and Dr. Joseph Pearson, Dr. P. E. P. Deraniyagala, Dr. P. H. D. H. de Silva and Sirinimal Lakdusinghe,” said Raheem.

The whole idea belonged to its founder Sir William Henry Gregory, a British Governor of Ceylon. However, the purpose of the building has changed now. The construction of the museum was carried out by Arasi Marikar Wapchie Marikar, is a legend and a story. Whether he constructed the whole building or part of it is debatable. They even spread the story that because he was a Muslim, they closed the museum on a Friday.

“The museum caters to different interests. There are people who are interested in history and many other subjects. There are a very valuable collection of coins. There is a very valuable collection of textiles. The importance depends on the person. If he is interested in bronze statues of the Polonnaruwa period, you can find that in the museum. Over the years there has been a lot of remodeling. The natural history section was added much later. However it is still considered as one of the best colonial buildings,” explained Raheem.

During the British times the emphasis was quite different. There was a lot of emphasis on Colonial furniture and history. “Now we have received independence and it has changed a lot since then. The emphasis and focus has changed,” said Raheem.

The Colombo National Museum Library was also established on January 1, 1877 incorporating the Government Oriental Library that had been established in 1870. Since 1885, by law, a copy of every document printed in the country has to be deposited in the museum library.




Filed under art & allure bewitching, British colonialism, Buddhism, cultural transmission, education, heritage, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, sri lankan society, world affairs

2 responses to “A Treasure Trove within a Magnificent Colonial Building

  1. Hugh

    Wapiche Marika’s role was as a building contractor who supplied labour and materials. Credit forthe design goes to the architect T Reid ? The story of the Friday holiday at the request of Marikar is another furphy which has gained ground through understandable activism from the Moor community, it remains a fable !

  2. Ivan Amarasinghe

    Two decades ago I visited this Museum in search of available documents on the genesis and evolution of our village, Kalahe together with any associated original records on the Portuguese presence in Galle. The Curator and staff couldn’t find any. I was told that when the Portuguese capitulated to the Dutch all documents were set on fire. If anybody can furnish any documents on above please let me know through Thuppahi’s.
    Also wish to access any documents of Hugh Neville especially on UVA Wellassa traditional agricultural technology before the scorched earth policy of the British in response to the rebellion.

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