National Museum, Colombo

National Museum, Colombo

National Museum, Colombo

Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha
P.O. Box 854, Colombo, Sri Lanka 7

M: 0094-1-694366, 0094-1-692092

F: 00-94-1-695366

E: [email protected]

Established on 1 January 1877 – during the tenure of the British Colonial Governor Sir William Henry Gregory – the National Museum, Colombo was the first Public Museum to be established in Sri Lanka. Set up by the Sri Lankan branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, with the support of the Governor Sir Gregory, it is very well-known for its collection of antiques and objects d’art showcasing the rich cultural heritage of the country. The museum is also the largest museum in Sri Lanka and houses national treasures and artefacts from all parts of the island-nation. Housed in an imposing and majestic two storied building designed in the Italian style by the architect of the then Public Works Department, James G. Smither, it is now among the historically rich monuments in the city of Colombo.

The aim of the National Museum is to create a collection – for purposes of collection, conservation, research and exhibition – of artefacts, specimens, books, and manuscripts, along with other documents on natural and cultural heritage, science, and technology for the benefit of the people. The Museum also conducts lectures, film shows, and seminars to disseminate knowledge pertaining to the history and culture of Sri Lanka, and its national heritage.

In 1877 when the National Museum was opened it had a collection of about 800 antiques. In 1986, when it was deemed that the exhibits relating to the natural heritage of the country were too numerous to be displayed in one building, the natural history collection was separated and housed in another building which has come to be known as the National Museum of Natural History.


  • A section of the first floor of the National Museum has a library with a collection of about 500,000 books – including very valuable, rare ones – along with more than 4,000 ancient palm leaf manuscripts. The range of artefacts on display at the Museum include Buddhist and Hindu bronzes, stone statues, paintings, frescoes, ceramics, antique furniture, masks, and royal objects from the Kings of Kandy.
  • The Reference Library at the Museum has the entire range of documents from the first works of 1737 to the latest publications. It has over 1 million titles now including a large number of rare books and periodicals. It has the largest collection of palm-leaf manuscripts in the country including the oldest discovered to date, which is the Chullavagga Ola leaf manuscript of the thirteenth century. Along with the Sinhalese manuscripts are also found palm leaf manuscripts in the languages of Pali, Sanskrit, Burmese and Cambodian.
  • The Museum also functions as a research institute engaged in contributions in explorations on subjects like Pre-history, Ethnology, Anthropology, Culture, and Ancient Crafts. Books based on such studies are published both at the national and international level. Spolia Zeylanika is one of the publications of the Museum that carries information regarding these researches to various countries. Along with this the Museum also offers a lot of educational programmes, services and resources. Among the services offered at the Museum are workshops, seminars, audio-visual programmes, guided tours, and lectures for visitors of all ages.
  • The Museum has a number of exquisite sculptures both in stone and bronze. Among the collection of bronzes at the Museum are the seated Buddha image from Badulla, and Bodhisattwa images form Veheragala, Thuparama, Giridara, Buduruwagala, and Badulla. An exhibition set up in 1995 – the ‘Heritage of the Bronze Sculpture in Sri Lanka’ is still on display. The Hindu icons in bronze are the statues of the Goddess Tara, and of Siva Nataraja and Ardhanari Nateshwara. The large seated Buddha image found at Toluwila near Anuradhapura dating back to the third to the fifth centuries A.D is an important piece
  • Rock inscriptions preserved at the Museum highlight the evolution of the Sinhala language script from the Brahmi script. Some other artefacts displayed are guard-stones, moon-stones, carved stone plaques, and stone pillars.
  • The collection of ivory carvings found in the Museum are reported to be the finest seen in any museum anywhere in the world.
  • The collection of coins dating from the 3rd century B.C. to the contemporary times exceeds over a hundred thousand.
  • Among the valuable paintings on display representing the traditional art of the country are those belonging to the traditional style of the Sigiriya, Hindagala, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy. The paintings trace the development of the art from the Anuradhapura period (roughly spans the period between 161 B.C to about the eighth century A.D.) to the Kandyan period (period between the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries).
  • There is a wide collection of folk arts and crafts on display at the Museum highlighting the daily life of the Sri Lankans over centuries where the masks relating to rituals and kolam dancing are seen along with a large number of musical instruments.
  • Popular exhibits at the Museum include the gold throne of the last king of Kandy, the crown, sword and sceptre, and footstool of King Wickrama Rajasinghe, and the jacket of the King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s queen.
  • A section of the first floor of the National Museum houses the Puppetry and the Children’s Museum.

The various galleries in the Museum housing the various categories of exhibits are as follows:

1. Evolution of the Buddha Image
2. Pre-History & Proto-History (proposed)
3. Anuradhapura Period
4. Polonnaruwa Period
5. Coins & Currency (temporary exhibition)
6. Crafts of Sri Lanka
7. Ceramic ware
8. Regalia & Jewellery
9. Stone Antiquities
10. Hon. Sir D.S. Senanayake Memorial GalleryLibrary
11. Education and Publication Section
12. Masks/Traditional Packing Materials (temporary exhibition)
13. Veddha Culture
14. Ancient Lamps
15. Paintings – Anuradhapura period
16. Paintings – Polonnaruwa and post-Polonnaruwa period
17. Paintings – Andrew Nicholl’s water paintings
18. Furniture
19. Instruments connected with musical and traditional pastimes
20. Devala costumes and indigenous medical objects
21. Puppetry
22. Agricultural Implements – proposed
23. Agricultural Implements – proposed
24. Special Exhibition – The Heritage of the Sri Lanka Bronze Sculpture


The National Museum comes under the Department of National Museums of the Government of Sri Lanka. The Department of National Museums is responsible for the research, education, conservation and management of Sri Lanka’s cultural and natural heritage. The Department also has 6 school science museums under it along with the following:

  • Natural History Museum, Colombo
  • Dutch Period Museum, Colombo
  • Folk Museum, Anuradhapura
  • National Museum, Ratnapura]
  • National Maritime Museum, Galle
  • National Museum, Kandy
  • Walisinghe Harischandra Museum, Katana