BOC coin museum: Not upto the mark – Sunday Times

By Dr. Kavan Ratnatunga


Open only on request: The entrance to the museum

The long awaited Bank of Ceylon Museum was finally opened on August 1 without much fanfare with the 77th anniversary celebrations of BoC. The Museum was to have opened for the Bank’s 75th anniversary.

BoC first opened a coin museum at their 50th Anniversary in 1989, based on a collection loaned to the bank by Fred Medis. That old fashioned museum which I saw many years ago was opened only on request, and even then rarely because of the lack of staff. In November 2012 on a visit to BoC headquarters, I met Dushanthi Jayawardena who with a Masters degree in Museum Studies from the US had joined the bank with a personal interest to renovate the museum. Together with Brig.Siri Munasinha and Cmdr. Nihal Fernando of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society I volunteered to help create a Numismatic Museum which we will not be embarrassed to show a visitor around.

Mr Medis offered to sell his collection but the BoC was not willing to invest and that collection was returned to him. Fred claimed that a number of his items were missing and highlighted the need for rigid inventory control with high resolution digital images and weights to ensure the integrity of the collection over the long term. This had not been done even though the collection had been with BoC for nearly 25 years. I had thought of loaning my Lakdiva Collection to the bank, but decided against doing that, because of these issues.

Ruwan Fonseka had purchased few years previously the collection of Wg. Cdr. Rajah Wickramasinhe, who had been president of the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society for many years. BoC purchased part of that collection for the museum. The selection of a representative collection of coins to purchase, within the limited Budget of BoC was a long and tedious process. It is a pity the bank decided to spend less than 10% of the modernization budget to buy the coin and currency collection which was to be the focus of the museum.

The new BoC collection however includes many rare Brahmi inscribed lead coins from Ruhuna, which were first discovered in the 1980s from around Akurugoda near Tissamaharama. Some of them are plate specimens from the 1999 book Ruhuna-An Ancient Civilisation Re-visited by Osmund Bopearachchi and Rajah M. Wickramasinhe. These coins issued before 1st century BCE, have been dated by other similar coins which have been found in archaeological excavations.

Another highlight is the large collection of over 30 Lankan gold kahavanu of many types from 8th to 13th century, in comparison to the single commonest gold Kahavanu on display at the CBSL museum. Over a dozen copper massa on display have the names of the Kings and a Queen who ruled Lanka from 11th to 13th century, identified by the Nagari text on the coin.

What is also interesting is the view from the 28th floor of the BoC. It addition to the grand view of the city except towards the adjoining WTC towers, it gives a clear view of the Colombo Port City slowly filling up the sea to the west and 3 towers of Hotel Shangrila now rapidly rising to the south. We saw both projects start up slowly while working on the BoC Museum project from the 30th floor.

We had worked many days at personal cost for over two years. Unfortunately Dushanthi had to leave in 2015 April to take up residency abroad and the project lost momentum and expertise. The museum lacks the quality we had envisaged and strived to produce.

Our offer of help to see the project through went unheeded. Requests to send us the panel text to proof read were ignored. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, in this case in both Numismatics and English. The panel text that we had drafted with the latest research seems to have reverted to what had been published nearly a century ago by Mr H. W. Codrington.

So when we went uninvited to the opening of the museum finished by the new BoC curator, it was no different to the coin collections at theColombo National Museum or the Central Bank Museum. The knowledgeable will be amused and the ignorant misled by what they read. Despite BoC having a large collection that could be imaged to illustrate the panels, many of the coin images used had been taken without any permission or acknowledgement from my personal website Visitors will wonder why some of the coins illustrated are different from those displayed in the cases. Each ancient hand struck coin has unique character and it is very easy to identify them without ambiguity from an image.

I was told that the BoC museum displays were finalized, working day and night for four days, which is more than the two days I was told used for the CBSL museum. The faults are too numerous to list. We hope the bank will spend what it takes to rectify the errors on the panels and displays, and many teething problems, as soon as possible, to take the museum to what it should be.There were many promises made to us and the Sri Lanka Numismatic Society, when we joined the project,which we hope will materialize someday.

Don’t miss the UV room with a white painted door near the exit, which was put in on my suggestion. It allows you to view the fascinating security printing on Sri Lankan currency since 1971. Particularly beautiful is the Rs. 2000 note. The room needs some instructions, because the display panels with the currency notes, need to be rotated, so that they are UV illuminated from above, to see the printing that glows in UV-light.

A small 40 page book on the modernization and expansion of the Bank of Ceylon Museum has been printed in English and a 12 page pamphlet in Sinhala which were distributed. A short video has also been produced, and was shown in the adjacent meeting room. In addition to the coin and currency displays it has an interesting section on the history of the Bank of Ceylon.

The Bank of Ceylon Museum is now open but can be viewed only after making a request to the BoC PR office. I hope they reconsider and keep it open for even a few hours each working day.