Located inside the Sri Lanka Ports Authority premises on Chaithya Road, the Maritime Museum is one of the lesser-known attractions of Colombo. With its colonial architecture, the building has the potential to house some impressive exhibits. Yet, stepping inside, I was struck mostly by its dinginess.
I’m received by a gaudy reception desk that is fashioned after a ship, with scaffolding behind it as the building seems to be preparing for some renovation. There is no air conditioning and there are no fans inside, so the high ceiling is the only saving grace.
As soon as I entered, I encountered a brass Prince Vijaya, covered in verdigris, next to a model of the ship he is believed to have arrived in. There is a lion painted on the ship, naturally, and a massive recreation of his arrival is painted as a backdrop. I walk along and find the same treatment for Sangamitta, the daughter of Emperor Asoka of India, who arrived in Sri Lanka with the sacred bo sapling; a Chinese monk Ven. Fahien; Ibn Batuta; the Portuguese, the Dutch and, last, but certainly not least, the British.
(Note to those with asthma, do not breathe heavily as you will erupt into a sneezing fit. This place is dusty, so hold your breath for as long as you can.)
The next room is quite eerie. Though this exhibit would require the least imagination to represent, it is the most disappointing of the lot. There is a panoramic mural of life along the Sri Lankan coast, with fishermen folk in sarama and their women, which is quite striking. What takes away from it are the life-size statues of these folk, their skin gleaming as they look out into the distance. It’s like Madame Tussaud's, but without the famous people, the lighting, or any real attempt to really bring this exhibit to life.
On the other side of the room, there is an arrangement of miscellaneous items involved in the maritime trade. These include hooks, lines, lamps, scales and even old telephones. These exhibits are mostly labelled in Sinhala, while the rest of the exhibits have trilingual information accompanying them. The inconsistency is disappointing.
Oh, there's also a massive model of a deep-sea diver that is actually pretty damn cool. The diver is standing on the table that carries the rest of the paraphernalia, which is a little odd, but the elevation helps this exhibit stand out. There are also some models of modern-day port and harbour machines and vehicles.
As with any museum in Sri Lanka, there are information boards telling tales that range from from elephant-and horse-trading to pottery and ceramics. These are trilingual, thankfully, although we spotted some priceless typos among them, including 'Ancient Navel Relations Reveded from Social Inscription', for fans of navel-gazing.
I’d like to see this place lit up, dust-free and with a less tacky reception. It’s worth a visit, but don’t get too excited.