The 15 best museums to visit in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has quite a high density of museums spreadall over the country. Although tourists tend to prefer visiting temples and other architectural marvels of the country, a visit to some of the major museums can provide you with an insight to the country’s rich past.
A visitor to the island can choose to visit one or more of the following important museums of the island :
Colombo National Museum
Historically, the National Museum was the first museum to be established in Sri Lanka under British Governor Sir William Henry Gregory. The museum is housed in an Italian style majestic two-storied building designed by architect James G. Smither. The building is a historic monument in Colombo in its own right. The museum opened its doors in 1877 and remains the largest museum in the country.
What to see :
Treasures of Sri Lanka including the crown and throne of the last king of Kandy.
Hindu bronzes depicting Hindu gods and goddesses.
Buddhist bronzes of seated Buddha and many bodhisattvas. Among them is a unique piece depicting a seated Buddha that was found at Toluwila, dating back to the 3rd century AD.
Stone sculptures and ancient coins.
A large art and craft collection of ceramics, ivory carvings, antique furniture masks and musical instruments.
A library with a collection of about 500,000 books, including some very rare 4000 “ola leaf” manuscripts (written on palm leaves) written in Sinhalese, Pali, Sanskrit and Cambodian, some of them dating back to the thirteenth century.
Ancient military paraphernalia such as swords, sceptres and daggers.
The museum also houses the Puppetry and Children’s Museum.
Colombo National Museum of Natural History
The National Museum of Natural History is situated in the same premises of Colombo National Museum facing Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha. Established in 1986, it features endemic plants and animals of Sri Lanka, some of them rare or endangered. Different specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes, amphibians, insects and various kinds of plants and rocks are to be seen here. The man-eating “Leopard of Punani” shot in Punani in 1924 after having reportedly killed 13 people is also to be seen. The Skull of Megacerus giganteus (an extinct species of deer) with huge horns is displayed at the Geological section of the museum.
Colombo National Art Gallery
The National Art Gallery is located next to the National Museum in Colombo. It is divided into three exhibition halls. The main wing has a permanent collection of portraits and landscapes by international artists. The other two galleries are house temporary exhibitions by Sri Lankan artists supported by both foreign and national trusts. The National Art Gallery also hosts the famous Colombo Art Biennale.
Colombo Maritime Museum
The Maritime Museum of Colombo Sri Lanka belongs to the Port Authority. It is located in the former Dutch prison built in 1676, which is the only building remaining from this period in the port of Colombo. It has been renovated and refurbished to 1676, with various objects of historical importance for the country’s maritime history. It features important statues and models of ships.
The Dutch Period Museum in Colombo
The museum, housed in the old ‘Dutch House’ on Prince Street in Pettah district of Colombo was the residence of Count August Carl Van Ranzow. The museum displays Dutch legacy through artefacts such as furniture, ceramics, coins, arms etc.
Kandy National Museum
The museum is situated adjacent to the Tooth Temple in an ancient palace dating back to the 17th century that once used to lodge the royal concubines. Towards the end of the kingdom, the King’s younger brother occupied the palace. This museum houses one of the most extraordinary collection of Sri Lankan palm leaf manuscripts and writing instruments. The Artistic and Historic section holds a varied collection of wooden sculptures from the 19th century. Other galleries contain a paraphernalia of objects both for daily use and/or of artistic value : engravings, weapons, ceremonial objects, wooden games, masks, funeral urns, silver and ivory objects, costumes, etc. The museum deserves to be refreshed. This can only do justice to the interesting collection it holds.
Kandy Sri Dalada Museum
If you are in Kandy, you are bound to visit the Temple of the tooth and this museum located on the first and the second floors of the new wing called the Alut Maligawa.
Kandy Ceylon Tea Museum
If you are not heading to the tea plantations in the hilly regions of the island and still want to have an insight on what used to be a tea factory, you can visit this museum situated in Hantana, atop a hill some three kilometres to the south of Kandy. The Museum introduces you to the world of tea on the four levels of the building: old machines and production tools on the ground floor, a library and an auditorium on the first floor, sale of different teas on the third floor and a restaurant on the last level offering panoramic views of Kandy and its surroundings. Paid entrance. Doors shut at 4:30 pm.
Hatana Ceylon Tea Museum
The Ceylon Tea Museum situated in Hantana, south of Kandy, displays exhibits like memorabilia, machinery, documents, pictures and objects of historical value to Sri Lankan tea industry. The story of the tea industry is an integral part of Sri Lankan history and an important source of revenue to the country (Sri Lanka is the second largest exporter of tea in the world). Apart from offering a knowledgeable insight to the tea industry, the museum is also a great spot to have a panoramic view of Kandy town, the Knuckles mountain range and the Matale hill range.
Galle National Maritime Archaeology Museum
After the devastation by the tsunami in 2004, the museum received a facelift in 2010 and is now housed in the Old Dutch Warehouse. The museology experts have divided the museum in two parts with the first one dedicated to the means of maritime transport in Sri Lanka, the traditional fishing techniques and lifestyle of fishing communities in the country. The second part presents the different marine ecosystems in Sri Lanka and their flora and fauna. The documentary shown before visiting the exhibits is quite interesting. Quite a few items from shipwrecks are also to be seen.
Galle National Museum
Housed in what used to be the officers’ quarters of the Dutch garrison, this museum inaugurated in 1986 holds a collection of traditional masks, weapons, furniture and porcelain objects. A sizeable portion of the exhibits is related to the Galle lace industry. There are quite many other objects in the permanent collection of the museum but the main drawback lies in the absence of a long overdue overhaul.
Galle Dutch Museum
For an insight into life in the days of the Dutch East India Company, try this small museum located on Leynbaan Street in Galle. This restored Dutch mansion contains paintings, prints, documents, furniture and ceramics from the Dutch colonial era.
Koggala Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum
Martin Wickramasinghe, one of Sri Lanka’s famous writers, wrote about the culture and life of the people of Sri Lanka. The house where Martin Wickramasinghe was born has been converted by the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust to establish a Folk Museum Complex, surrounded by hundreds of indigenous trees and shrubs. The house and the setting remind the places around Koggala that are ever present in Wickramasinghe’s writings. The Folk Museum houses a collection of artefacts, a beautiful collection of masks, varied inventions in agriculture, fishing utensils, pottery and metal works, various objects used in folk dances and religious ceremonies.
Ambalagonda Mask Museum
Located in the Galle district, this museum houses a large collection of masks used in exorcism rituals in the area.
Ratnapura National Museum
Ratnapura, famed for being the home of the Sri Lankan gem trade, has several private museums dedicated to the industry, where you can purchase precious stones. One of them is the Gemmological and National Museum that offers a wide range of stones for sale. Here you can watch raw stones being cut and polished. The National Museum, housed in a magnificent building known as the Ehalepola Walauwa, has a whole range of artefacts on display. The exhibits include a collection of pre-historic fossils of elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses found in gem pits from the Balangoda area. Also displayed are stuffed animals and snakes in jars. There are numerous items of local art and culture such as musical instruments, masks, textiles, flags and fabrics. Splendid examples of the jewellery are also on display.
Anuradhapura Folk Museum
Anuradhapura Folk Museum aims to collect, conserve and exhibit cultural and religious objects used by the folk community in the area who centuries ago were cut off from the outside world and lived in an autonomous way surrounded by thick forest. The objects they used in daily life illustrate their traditional knowledge.