Disappearing act of a museum artefact

The mystery of a missing sword from the E.W. Perera Museum in Kotte, raises questions on the procedures adopted when items are taken out of museums for display outside.
By Dhananjani Silva, Pix by J. Weerasekera

A sword of historic value from a museum in Kotte taken to be exhibited elsewhere is missing and now Criminal Investigations Department sleuths are attempting to establish how it vanished without a trace.
The sword is believed to have been used by a nilame who was a relative of Veediya Bandara of the Kotte Kingdom. It is said to be about 300 years old.
The bare space indicates the missing sword.

The mystery of the missing sword was first highlighted by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna MP Lakshman Nipunarachchi in Parliament last week.

“On information received that the sword was missing, I made enquiries from the Department of Archaeology, but no explanation was forthcoming,” MP Nipunarachchi said when contacted by the Sunday Times. “This is why I brought this issue before Parliament. Usually artefacts may be taken out for display at exhibitions only under special permission. There is procedure to be followed.”

He said the JVP wants an explanation as to where the sword was taken, for what purpose and who was responsible for it going missing, the MP said. The Sunday Times followed a hazy trail in an attempt to find out how artefacts are taken from museums to be displayed at public exhibitions and who authorizes such removal.

This newspaper found that though the MP alleged that two museum pieces – the sword of E.W. Perera and a statue of the Natarajah deity had gone missing after being removed from the National Museum in Colombo, the statue was safe and sound. (See Minister’s comment below)

It was the sword which is missing and not from the National Museum but from the E.W. Perera Museum at Kotte, the Sunday Times understands. E.W. Perera known as the ‘Lion of Kotte’ was a prominent figure in the independence movement.

National Museum Curator Ranjith Hewage, when contacted, stressed that none of their artefacts are missing and no items under their care are sent for displays outside. “We only send digital print panels of the artefacts for exhibitions,” he reiterated. The National Museum comes directly under the Cultural and National Heritage Ministry while all other museums fall under the purview of the Department of Archaeology.

When the Sunday Times requested a photograph of the Natarajah statue on the grounds that the Minister had said it was at the National Museum, a source said there are several versions of the statue and they were uncertain as to which statue was being referred to. “What is on display at the National Museum is the Shiva Natarajah statue at the Gallery No. 4,” the source added.

Although there was speculation that the sword had been on display at the Dayata Kirula exhibition, the Sunday Times learns that it had been taken from the E.W. Perera Museum for an exhibition at Seethawaka in Avissawella two years ago.

The sword, it is learnt, does not belong to E.W. Perera but is from a collection of Douglas Ranasinghe and had been presented to the museum along with many other items. The sword had been at the museum since 1992.

This kinissa was in the form of a bastama (walking stick), the Sunday Times understands and was among several other items such as gal bola and puskola poth taken from the museum by the Department of Archaeology for display elsewhere. The other items have been returned. Many attempts by the Sunday Times to contact officials of the Department of Archaeology were futile, with those who answered the phones saying that all of them were out of the office.

Probe is on says Minister

I have been informed that the sword had been returned to the E.W. Perera Museum by the officials after the exhibition and it was thereafter that it had gone missing, said Cultural Affairs and National Heritage Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena when contacted by the Sunday Times.
Minister Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena

“Investigations are on and we will take strict action against those responsible,” he assured, explaining that the CID has taken over the investigations.

The Minister, however, confirmed that the original Natarajah statue which was at the National Museum was never removed. Maybe it was a replica that was taken for the exhibition, he said.

When asked what the procedure is when removing museum pieces for display outside, Mr. Yapa Abeywardena said a form has to be filled with all the details and the authorization of a superior official taken. The officer who authorizes the removal of the item from the museum is responsible for its return as well.

However, when a national treasure needs to be exhibited outside the country there is a rigorous procedure to be followed which includes Cabinet approval as well, he said, explaining that this particular sword is not considered a national treasure as it doesn’t have much ancient value.

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