Mosaic of our cultural unity | Daily News


National museum revitalised

Mosaic of our cultural unity

The Colombo Museum, as it was called at the beginning, was established on January 1, 1877. Its founder was Sir William Henry Gregory, the British Governor of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at the time. The Royal Asiatic Society (CB) was instrumental in bringing to the notice of Gregory on his appointment as Governor in 1872, the need for a public museum. With much difficulty, the approval of the Legislative Council was obtained within a year. The Architect of the then Public Works Department, J.G. Smither was able to prepare the plans for a new structure on the Italian architectural style. The construction was completed in 1876 and the museum commenced its functions in the following year.

- From the National Museum-

Sri Lanka is an island of mixed heritage. To understand the rich diversity of the island’s communities since the beginnings, one need not go further than the Colombo National Museum, which has a plethora of artefacts attesting to this fact.

However, one of the greatest barriers to the progression of society is the labelling of individuals and communities which inevitably promotes divisions and suspicions, resulting in conflict. As societies expand, the labelling gets more complex and people become more confused in their own makings, throwing rationality out of the window. In trying to give authenticity to labels, they go back to the nostalgic past of a time when ‘purity’ reigned, selling it as the historical example to justify their confused state of divisive mindsets. However, history tells a different story when we dig deep, as Museologist Hasini Haputhanthri explained during a curated tour of the Colombo National Museum.

As we retrace our ancestry, we come across many people who arrived in our country for various reasons, and some never left. Hasini points out the absurdity of modern-day thinking of a ‘pure’ race or an uncontaminated past, questioning the rhetoric of contemporary ethnic stereotypes, as she took the group of visitors on a journey through history.

As we enter the National Museum, the statue of Hindu Goddess Durga stands tall with all her grace, giving stark evidence that Hinduism was very much in practice in the country alongside Buddhism during the Anuradhapura era, despite the popular belief that the Hindu influence on art and culture only began from the Polonnaruwa era. Hasini questioned the assumptions that Anuradhapura was home only to Buddhist thought, when Hindu Goddesses stood alongside.

Even the Nestorian Cross discovered during excavations in Anuradhapura and the trilingual stone inscription of Zheng He from much later in the 15th century, indicates the diversity of faiths, or at least the movement of people of different faiths across the island throughout time. According to the curator, such evidence establishes the fact that society in the bygone era had not only been connected to the world, but even welcomed different cultures into their lives without dispute. Studying history through archaeological sources, Hasini showed that simple ‘Sinhala’ and ‘Tamil’ tags are not accurate categories in the ancient world.

Enabling the visitors to question the dominant ideologies of race or ethnicity, Hasini showed evidence from the National Museum that even Theravada was not the only branch of Buddhism practised on the island. The discovery of female Bodhisattva statues from Anuradhapura brings light in this regard, since Bodhisattva worship, especially in the female form, is found in the Mahayana tradition instead of Theravada.

Hasini delved further into history, to the pre- and proto-historic era before King Vijaya from Dambadiva first stepped into Thambapanni, according to historical chronicles such as the Mahavamsa. The visitors were given a glimpse of the way of life of the pre-historic society, acknowledging that they had been more globalised than we realised. Adorned in Carnelian beads brought to ancient Sri Lanka through trade from the regions of North India and beyond, the pre-historic human sparked debate on the diverse and globalised nature of this island since the pre-historic era.

Hasini also shone light on the influence of Islamic culture as well, as far back as the 10th century when tombstones were engraved in Arabic, Persian and Kufic inscriptions. Such artefacts have been found in different parts of the island, indicating that ancient society had been highly integrated with no evidence to show that the diversity of cultures that existed due to trade was seen as a threat.

Seeing such abundant evidence at the museum, it was clear that there had been different kinds of people, speaking different languages, living side by side on this island for a very long time. Divisive lines established in society today start blurring when we delve further into the past and people need not go far, but take a walk in a museum to find the answers to the national question. The exquisite artefacts speak volumes for our very existence on this island and make a silent call to keep the spirit of co-existence alive.

Sadly, diversity in ancient society is not highlighted in today’s history books and seeing the artefacts in the museum in such an in-depth manner was a realisation that today’s society needs to create a different story of the past to build a different and inclusive future.

The museum walk with Hasini also highlighted the need to look at museums as interactive, educational and futuristic spaces, and move beyond the thinking of the colonial era where museums were often storehouses of the past. The National Museums Department seems to move forward with this in mind by drawing up plans to upgrade museums aiming for more visitor interaction.

“A touch panel system will be set up near exhibits apart from the label before the end of this year to provide more information to visitors,” Director General of the Museums Department, Sanuja Kasthuriarachchi said. She added that the National History Museum’s entomology gallery would be open to the public this year after several upgrades.

Apart from the regular annual updating of data for internal purposes, digitalisation of Sri Lankan museums is still a distant dream. Sri Lanka is still taking baby steps in comparison to the vast advancements of world museums by integrating modern technology and innovative pedagogy. With museums now accessible in the digital form, the need for innovative methods of Sri Lanka’s museum education and the need for digitalisation is strongly felt to enable the young generation to question, giving them the much-needed support to be enlightened and empowered.

(The writer is an independent journalist working in the area of social cohesion and reconciliation.)

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