Facelift for Natural History Museum

Being renovated for the first time since it was opened in 1986, the remodelled building will play host to new and updated exhibits dedicated to Sri Lanka’s natural heritage
By Wasantha Ramanayake

The gloomy and stuffy galleries of the country’s only museum dedicated to natural heritage is distracting to visitors but authorities say the upgrading of the Museum is underway. The National Museum of Natural History is located on the same premises as the National Museum, though it does not boast of gems and studded gold; rather, it values the gifts from nature, both from the past and present.

When the National Museum was opened in 1877, the main exhibits were things from nature; fauna and flora, skeletons, fossils and minerals. However, when the ruins of cities such as Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were excavated, numerous artifacts were brought to the national museum, underscoring the need to have a separate museum for the natural heritage of the country.

Nearly a hundred years after the opening of the national museum the foundation stone was laid in 1970 to construct the Natural History Museum but it was completed and opened to the public after 16 years in 1986.

Exhibits display minerals such as quartz and fossilized bones from gem pits prove that rhinos and lions used to roam freely in Sri Lanka. While the country’s natural history is impressive the museum also plays host to wonders from around the world, for example a big attraction is the huge antlers of the giant elk, an animal that inhabited parts of Europe more than 10,000 years ago.

Located in the backyard of the national museum, the natural history museum faces “Nelumpokuna Road and the buildings of the museum appear plain when compared to the striking colonial charms of the national museum. Despite containing a vast array of national treasures, including stuffed and skeletal remains of animals, minerals and the general knowledge it offers of the natural heritage of the country, the natural history museum lacks the care and patronage given to the national museum.

“The building lacks proper ventilation and lighting because it was originally meant to be air-conditioned,” museum curator Nayana Dharshini Perera told the Sunday Times, explaining the reason for the hot, stale and stuffy feeling inside museum.

Unfortunately, in practice air-conditioning the entire building proved impractical due to the huge electricity bill coupled with a limited budget allocation. “We tried some exhaust fans to ease the stuffy feeling, but they are now corroded,” she explained. She said the old exhaust fans would be replaced but there are also large industrial pedestal fans placed in the pavilions to take the burden off of the ceiling fans.

One visitor observed that the museum lacks many dimensions, its galleries are gloomy and stuffy and the exhibits and their descriptions are ordinary and plain. However, the much needed renovations are underway, including a Rs. 39 million two storeyed skeleton gallery to be added by 2014. This will display the giant blue whale skeleton, which is currently in the National Museum.

“Once the gallery is complete the skeleton may be viewed from any angle, even from above. The gallery’s new, attractive, shape will no doubt change the monotonous appearance of the building,” Ms. Perera said.

The basement floor that once had displays related to Applied Botany, incorporating agriculture, horticulture, weed control among others has been closed for quite some time for modifications.
“Since it was opened to the public in 1986, this is the first time we managed to start refurbishing that section,” added Ms. Perera.

She said that around Rs. 2.3 million had been allocated for the renovation and once completed will include a sample collection of flora that would not be found anywhere but in Sri Lanka. She added that the exhibits relating to the Mahaweli project would be removed from the section.

“We’ll have a modern science and technology pavilion with latest audio and video facilities in the near future where the visitors can have a better understanding of the technologies of our ancestors,” she revealed. She is referring to another section on the third floor that has also been closed for renovation.
She said that the Sri Lanka Engineers Association is revamping the exhibits relating to the fields of science and technology which they will be modernizing with the addition of audio and video features. Currently closed for renovation this section exhibits the know-how of a by-gone era, including ancient irrigation systems, how they obtained iron from iron ore.

“The technology of world famous Eth Pahana (tusker lamp) found in the Kotawehera in Galigamuwa and ancient irrigation systems are among the things explained here using modern audio and video facilities,” she clarified. The renovated building would use natural lighting and ventilation. Skeletons of animals will be added to the display already containing a tusker, she added.

‘The Punani Man Eater’ a leopard, which killed 13 people in 1924, is still perfectly preserved after nearly 90 years on display, a classic example of the dry preservation that the museum boasts. This goes well with the objectives of the museum- to collect, preserve, collect information and educate the public on the natural heritage of the country. There are also various stuffed rare and endemic bird species, mammals such as leopards and giant water buffalos on display. The museum also has guide lecturers who offer their services free.

“The museum is fortunate enough to employ a new Tamil guide lecturer, because so many Tamil medium students are coming nowadays from North and the East,” Ms. Perera said.

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Facelift for Natural History Museum


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