It's the museum. There’s no need to specify which one. Other countries and cities might have many parks and several museums but in Colombo we have just one of each. Pedants might point out that there’s the ramshackle Dutch museum, the decrepit Natural History museum and the obscure Bandarnaike Museum but these are at best a dusty room or two filled with a handful of nic-nacs. 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. Housed in a gorgeous and enormous Italianate colonial edifice the National Museum of Colombo, to give it its full title, is a pretty effective showcase for our island’s 3000 year heritage.
You enter the vast grounds from Marcus Fernando Mawatha and once you’ve paid your Rs 25 entrance fee stroll through the expansive lawns up to the whitewashed portico and begin exploring.
The ground floor takes you though the various periods of the country’s history. From the Anuradhapura kingdom- model irrigation works, stupas, stone carvings, through to Polonnaruwa- excellent bronzes, and then to the Kandyan kingdoms-swords, intricate ivory boxes and and tortoiseshell combs. Of course the 400 years between Pollonaruwa and Kandy when the country fell under strong South Indian influence and shattered into numerous inglorious sub-kingdoms is given scant attention. But this classic historical revisionism aside the museum, if you care to read the well-printed labels and descriptions, offers a fairly detailed overview of the country’s impressively long recorded history.
Moving through sections devoted to different historical periods you can chart the rise and crucially the fall of the island’s ancient civilization. You can see that paintings from the Anuradhapura period (Sigirya Frescoes) were more sophisticated than those from Pollonaruwa (600 years later) and that Pollonaruwa’s art was in turn more sophisticated than the rather primitive two-dimensional illustrations produced by the Kandyans just 300 year ago. It’s really a narrative of decline, from the glories of Anuradhapura to the romantic but backwards isolation of the Kandyan Kingdom and thanks to an HSBC sponsored refurbishment the now sparkling galleries do a good job of telling the story. Beyond the broad historical arc there are also some individually outstanding and interesting pieces- Pollonaruwa bronzes, bits of Chinese porcelain acquired through trade and the museum’s stunning center-piece the gold throne and crown of the island’s last king.
Once you’ve wound your way through three millenniums worth of history head up the fabulous double staircase and start working your way through the the recently re-opened second floor galleries. Here the layout seems to be more thematic- musical instruments, weapons, utensils- than historical. While the artifacts tend to be smaller they are no less that fascinating- check out the Kandyan canons and the pleasing conch-trumpet fusion instrument. Again the refurbishment seems to be a success with objects better organized and displayed than they were before. Sadly however many of the old formerly dilapidated but accessible galleries have been closed off so you’re note quite as free as you once were to wander over balconies and across corridors discovering room after room of dusty treasure. .
If you look hard enough though you can still find some remote unrestored corners left. The room that displays the museum’s bizarre collection of puppets is still opened. Filthy display cases filled with hanging human figures- British punch and Judies, Italian harlequins, Russian fairy tale figures stare eerily at you and to make matters more surreal the skeleton of an enormous blue whale hangs above them all. It must really be one of the most surreal spaces on earth- a dusty wing in an Italianate building put up by the British in Colombo to house Sri Lankan artifacts contains a chamber full of European marionettes over which flies a blue whale (to me this is the highlight of the museum).
Its in these quirky rarely visited corners, forgotten by almost everyone that you really get a sense of the museum’s charm. It’s an enormous, eccentric and beautiful space that on any weekday afternoon you stand a good chance of having to yourself. So for just Rs 25 this near endless mansion with all its artifacts becomes your own personal space and once you’ve finished with the collection you’ll realize the building extends far, far beyond the display spaces.
There's an auditorium, store rooms , reading rooms, a microfiche archive, sections for publishing, entomology and taxidermy! With a bit of ingenuity and determination you can make your way into many if not all these spaces. As you go further back into the depths of the building you’ll find secluded courtyards, flying corridors, thousand year old pillars and a real secret garden (between the Museum and the Natural History Museum). Make it all the way to the entomology /taxidermy section at the back and you’ll also discover the absolute best place in Colombo (I defy you to find a better one) to read a book. It’s on the balustrade of the covered walkway between the auditorium and the Entomology department. You can swing your legs over the edge and sit for hours with your favorite book looking up intermittently at the succession of overgrown courtyards.
If you’re still not satisfied Colombo’s second best reading spot- under the banyan tree by the museum’s back gate onto Green Path is just a few meter away. The whole place is just full of amazing nooks and corners where you can while away an afternoon and feel that the rest of the world is very far away. To be able to avail yourself of such a magical space, in the heart of Colombo, for Rs 25 is a real privilege and one that may not last as the government seems to be making a concerted effort to ‘redevelop’ the underutilized section at back of the museum compound. A lakpahana and gallery cafe are apparently on their way so the museum might not remain the charming oasis most Colombars have long taken for granted. So YAMU can only suggest you go and visit this world within a world as soon as you have a free afternoon.
Note: while the refurbishment is definitely an improvement with items better organized and displayed as a relatively frequent visitor to the museum I couldn’t help but notice that quite a few items I recall seeing on past visits seem to be missing. (I know there was a break in recently but more that that). There was a room full of heavy stone work, including gandhara artifacts that appears to have have vanished, furniture galleries that arent here anymore and some watercolors by a British artist i can no longer find…..Hopefully these things have just been put into safe storage but given the way of things in our island you can never be certain…
Use the place not just as a museum but as a public space. For Rs. 25 its a museum, park and Colombo's grandest accessible building. Head to the back by the entomology section, take a good book and find a pleasant corner to read in.