Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Martin Wickramasinghe's Museum for Ordinary Folk

Sri Lanka has a written history of more than 2500 years. Chronicles written throughout the history speak on the rulers and the religious history of the land. Archeological excavations have also unearthed many historical sites, mainly of religious value. However, these findings and chronicles do not tell the history of the ordinary folk. Understandably, archeological museums also tell the story of the rulers and the buildings they commissioned. Little detail of ordinary folk is found in such museums. Therefore, historians, let alone the general public, know next to nothing about the people and details of their lives.

Martin Wickramasinghe, a native of Koggala in Galle District, Sri Lanka, was a man of the village and a writer of the people. In his younger days, he had seen many facets of the village life in Southern Sri Lanka. His literary works are full of the details of the lives of ordinary folk. A believer of evolution, he understood that society will change dramatically even in a short period of time. He knew that many of the things he saw in the early part of the 20th century will not be similar after the passage of several decades. Therefore, he had the dream of establishing a folk museum, to preserve the history of the ordinary folk. With this concept in his mind, he even collected some material which could eventually be used in a museum.

Five years after his death, in December 1981, the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust established the Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum near his ancestral home in Malalgama, Koggala. By this time, the village life of Sri Lanka had undergone significant change from the days of Wickramasinghe’s younger age, giving credence to his idea of the necessity of a folk museum. Village life all over the country has changed dramatically due to the influence of new cultures, especially after the arrival of open market economy and the television. However, the lives of the people of Koggala changed dramatically well before those changes, in 1942.

During the Second World War, in the year of 1942, the British ordered 1000 families of Malalgoda and the adjacent villages to leave their homes within 24 hours. Then the British leveled almost all the houses in the area and built the Koggala air strip. However, as the story goes, a female air force officer was fascinated by the simple architecture of the Wickramasinghe ancestral home and chose it as her place of residence. Therefore, it escaped the fate of the other houses in the area. Years after the war, in 1962, the now independent Ceylon government handed the land back to Martin Wickramasinghe. Although he did not make the house his permanent residence, he made regular visits to his ancestral home. Today, it has been preserved and exhibits objects he used in his life. Since the house is small, a new section has been built behind it as an extension. On one side of the house, Martin Wickramasinghe lies in his final resting place.

From its humble beginnings, the museum has developed into a living monument of many facets of the lives of the Sri Lankan folk. It is located in the middle of a nicely kept garden, which is full of greenery. A visitor who is entering the main building will be greeted by a replica of an ancient irrigation system, which has been the basis of the livelihood of Sri Lankan people for centuries. This first chamber also contains Buddhist artifacts, agricultural implements, fishing equipments, relics of folk beliefs and details of the evolution of the Sinhalese language. This is a wide description of the main aspects of the Sri Lankan culture within the boundaries of a single chamber.

The Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum has a number of sections, covering religion, art of writing, agriculture, fisheries, folk entertainment, household items, jewelry and ornaments of the people, small and cottage industries, costumes, traditional vehicles and even a section on boats and canoes. The costume gallery, the exhibition of traditional vehicles and the section on boats and canoes are relatively new additions.

The bulk of the artifacts in the museum are not custom built artifacts but objects that have been used by ordinary people. In that aspect, the museum is a living history of the local folk of Sri Lanka, particularly the people of the down south. They all have a story to tell, of the customs, beliefs, livelihoods and many other facets of life of the people. Hence, it is a treasure trove of stories. Martin Wickramasinghe Folk Museum is not only a monument to the great writer, but also a monument to the people he loved so much.

Photos by Sakuna Gamage

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