Opinion

Dismemberment of the Colombo National Museum Complex

Professor Karuansena Kodituwakku, Minister of Human Resources, Education and Cultural Affairs, a University Professor, a one time Vice-Chancellor, Ambassador and one with dealings with UNESCO, seems like Nero playing the harp sitting cool when another Minister and Ministry are taking over the custody of the Natural History Museum which is an integral part of the Colombo Museum Complex of the department of National Museums and its scientific collections, a museum and a department which comes under Professor Kodituwakku. The Minister under reference is Mr. Rukman Senanayke and the Ministry, the Ministry for Environment.

A cabinet paper is under preparation or is under submission and a new Act to establish a National Museum of Environment is being prepared, involving taking custody of the present Natural History Museum from the department of National Museums together with the scientific collections pertaining to Sri Lanka’s Fauna, Flora, Palaeontology and Geology with considerable research potential and which already has formed the basis of a huge number of scientific papers and monographs by a line of eminent Museum Directors and Scientific Staff. This collection has been made over a period of more than one hundred years and cared for and preserved with much dedication by the museums’ staff.

The National Museums Act of November 22, 1942 (chapter 187) Section 2 states as follows:–

"The Minister may from time to time by order published in the gazette establish one or more National Museums for the collection, preservation and exhibition of objects of scientific, historical or artistic value and for the maintenance of libraries of books and other documents relating to subjects and matters of such interest."

It is clear from this provision that only the Minister ie. today it is Minister Kodituwakku who is empowered to establish National Museums and National Museums could only be established under the present National Museums Act. Any other attempt to establish a National Museum by any other Ministry is a gross violation of the National Museums Act of 1942.

It is a great pity that Minister Mr. Rukman Senanayke is ignorant of the fact that National Parks and Forest Reserves under his control are the very best National Environment Museums one could ever hope for. We Museologists call them Open Air Eco-Museums, the world ‘eco’ is an abbreviation for Ecology or Environmental Science.

Does Minister Senanayake think that by displaying dead preserved or mounted specimens against a simulation of natural environment (we call this display dioramas and the national museums have been doing this for decades) is preferable to live animals in their natural environment? Why duplicate work that is already being done? Why take something handled so successfully by museum professionals for over a century by uninspired, non-dedicated, and by non-professionals? For God’s sake why? Why?

This new name, "National Museum for Environment" is to replace the already established and functional National Museum of Natural History now under the custody of the Department of National Museums. I learn that this project is funded by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington. For 17 years during my directorship I had the most cordial relationship with this Institution, its secretary and some of its reputed scientists. We had also several joint projects. I will never accept the fact that the Smithsonian Institution will ever sponsor a project which involves the dismemberment of the Colombo National Museums Complex. Rather it will help us to develop and expand the Colombo National Museums Complex on lines they have followed on the Mall where not less than five top museums of National Status have been established. I hope to address the US Ambassador in Colombo and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution soon in this regard.

If the government truly wants to help the National Museums Department the very best thing is non-interference and the issue of orders which seriously affect the well being of this national organisation, its national collections and the museum professionals on its staff. During my time I too had to face such ministerial interference, but I am happy that I stood firm at the risk of losing my job. What the government could do is to prohibit the dismemberment of the museum collections under any circumstance and prevent situations like the present from ever occurring. There was a move to take over under political high handedness the collections of the Museum Library to replenish the National Library. It is very convenient for edifice builders to take over collections already built up through political pressure instead of building up collections themselves. Their motto is to "Rob Peter to pay Paul". They are like the carrion feeders.

The government should provide sufficient funds, fill up the vacancies in the scientific staff and send them for postgraduate training, provide enough technical staff to handle the vast and diverse collections, and provide them with in-service training abroad and take every meaningful step to develop and expand these National Institutions.

I take this opportunity to emphasize the fact that it was the late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister, though faced with considerable financial difficulties who provided the funds to put up the present Natural History Museum building. I must state that more recently it was President Chandrike Bandaranaike who provided the requisite funds to put up the new building with central air conditioning to house collections of the Museum Library, another integral part of the colombo National Museum Complex. This library was not built with government funds but through donations and exchanges with our research bulletin, Spolia Zeylanica and other monographs and books published by the Museums. There have been numerous donations over the years and to mention just two to the libarary, (1) the valuable collection of palm leaf manuscripts — the Blake collection – by the present President’s grandfather, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike and the other, (2) a valuable collection of about 10,000 newspapers by Ven’ble Kalukondayawe Pannasekara Maha thera.

The Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science as well as the Scientific officers Union have become to the department’s rescue on many occasions when its future as well as its collections were threatened. I have full confidence that they would step in immediately and prevent a colossal museum disaster.
Dr. P. H. D. H. De Silva
Retired Director of National Museums


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