Colombo National Museum | Sri Lanka's First Museum

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National Museum of Colombo

The National Museum of Colombo is the first Museum Established in Sri Lanka (Embuldeniya & Karunarathna, 2019; Rambukwella, 2014). It is also the largest museum in the country with a comprehensive collection of objects.


The museum was established on 1 January 1877, during the tenure of the office of British colonial Governor Sir William Henry Gregory (Embuldeniya & Karunarathna, 2019; Rambukwella, 2014). He was a politician and also the chairman of the British Museum Foundation Committee before his arrival in Sri Lanka (Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018). When he arrived in Colombo in 1872, one of the first priorities to confront him was to establish a public museum in the country (McEvansoneya, 2017).

During the 1840s, the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (CBRAS) was in an idea to establish a museum in Sri Lanka [(then Ceylon) Rambukwella, 2014]. However, it did not become fruitful until William Henry Gregory assumed responsibilities as the Governor of Ceylon on 4 March 1872 (McEvansoneya, 2017; Rambukwella, 2014). In 1872, the appeals particularly made by the CBRAC and the keenness shown by Governor Gregory caused to put a plan forward for establishing a public museum. With much difficulty, it was passed in the next year, 1873, by the country's Legislative Council (Rambukwella, 2014; Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018). As a result of these efforts, the first public museum in the country called as Colombo Museum was established in the heart of Colombo town, on 1 January 1877.

In 1915, several improvements were made to the museum by adding more galleries and objects and labelling the displayed objects (Wickramasinghe 2006). A wooden four-poster bed of massive proportion which is believed to have belonged to the last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815 A.D.), was also among those new additions (Wickramasinghe 2006).

The National Museum Ordinance No. 31 was passed in 1942, forming the Department of National Museums (Rambukwella, 2014). After that, by a treaty, the Colombo Museum was declared the national museum of the country and since then it has been called as Colombo National Museum (Rambukwella, 2014). Besides the museum at Colombo, several other museums at the national level were also set up (such as Kandy, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, and Ratnapura) in the following years by the Department of National Museums (Rambukwella, 2014).

A large collection of natural science objects was also displayed at the National Museum. The giant skeleton of a whale was special among them and it earned the huge attention of the local people who visited the museum. Due to the enormous size of the skeleton, local people started to call the museum 'Katuge', the skeleton house (Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018). In 1972, the Natural Science Section was removed from the National Museum and moved to a new building block creating a new museum, the National Museum of Natural History (Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018).

Presently, the National Museum has been divided into several divisions, viz: Ethnology, Anthropology, Zoology (Taxidermy), Botany, Geology, Artifact Conservation, Education & Publication, Exhibition Design Unit, and Photography (Prematilaka & Hewage, 2018).


The museum library was also established on 1 January 1877 with a collection drawn from the Government Oriental Library (Rambukwella, 2014). Later, the library of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was integrated into the museum library (Rambukwella, 2014).

The Building

The museum building was constructed by James G. Smither, an architect of the Public Works Department, following the Italian architectural style (Embuldeniya & Karunarathna, 2019). Its construction work was completed in 1876 and the museum commenced its functions in the following year.

A Protected Monument

The National Museum building belonging to the Colombo Municipal Limits in the Grama Niladhari Division of Kurunduwatta in the Divisional Secretariat Division, Thimbirigasyaya is an archaeological protected monument, declared by a government Gazette notification published on 18 October 2002.


1) Embuldeniya, P., Karunarathna, K.G.M., 2019. Significance of developing museums in Sri Lanka as tourist attractions: with special reference to national museums. EPRA International Journal of Research and Development. Vol. IV. Issue 2. pp.14-21.
2) McEvansoneya, P., 2017. Sir William Gregory and the origins and foundation of the Colombo Museum. In Curating empire. Manchester University Press.
3) Prematilaka, L., Hewage, R., 2018. A guide to the National Museum, Colombo: Department of National Museum. ISBN: 978-955-578-035-3. pp.1-2.
4) Rambukwella, M.W.C.N.K., 2014. Heritage representation in culturally diverse societies: a case study of the Colombo National Museum in Sri Lanka (Doctoral dissertation, School of Museum Studies). pp.15-16,48,130,141-142,148.
5) The Gazette of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. 18 October 2002.
6) Wickramasinghe, N., 2006. Sri Lanka in the modern age: A history of contested identities. University of Hawaii Press. pp.105-107.

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This page was last updated on 14 January 2024
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