24th  August,  2003  Volume 10, Issue 6

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A visit to the Dutch Museum

By Shezna Shums

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the busy Pettah Streets with their street hawkers, wholesale and retail outlets and other shop vendors, tucked away in Prince Street lies serene and mystic 'The Dutch Period Museum.'  

The museum is said to be one of the oldest buildings in Pettah. It dates back as far as the year 1692 when it was the residence of Governor Thomas Van Rhee, said the museum's Curator L.S.Perera.

Governor Thomas Van Rhee (1692-1697) later sold the house to the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C). Thereafter it was used as a seminary/orphanage until the Dutch territory ceded to the British in 1796. 

Further explaining the history of the building, Perera said that under the British, the building had been used as a military hospital, armoury, police training centre and lastly as the Pettah Post and Telegraph office. But in 1974 when part of the building collapsed, the post office shifted out. And in October 1974 the restoration committee was formed to transform this old Dutch building into the Dutch Period Museum.

The Dutch Period Museum was  opened on July 10, 1982 and comes under the Department of National Museums. When first opened, all the Dutch artifacts, documents, antiques, coins, furniture and cutlery were transfered from the National Museum to the newly opened Dutch Period Museum.

The Museum depicts the various aspects of Dutch occupation of ceylon. They mostly occupied the maritime provinces of the country during their occupation of 140 years.

In the book Dutch Period Museum Prince Street Pettah by Ashley de Vos, the historical aspect of the building is described: "This building located in Prince Street, so named by the Dutch as a compliment to the son of King Rajasinghe of Kandy, was then a highly residential part of the Pettah. Prince Street was approximately five meters from and ran parallel to Malieban Street, (Maliban Street) which was the fashionable promenade of the Dutch Fraus in the good old days when carriages were not wanted, and Pettah enjoyed all the privileges of the Western gentility.  Maliban, literally means 'The Mall."'

When The Sunday Leader visited the museum we were shown the well in the courtyard, which was said to exist even when Governor Thomas Van Rhee was in residence. However there has been an addition of a metal arch over the well pointed out Perera.

Amidst the old building is the well-kept courtyard of the museum and this greenery further adds to the peaceful and scenic environment within the museum as opposed to the hectic, dusty and busy streets outside.

The building as well as the artifacts in the building are very well preserved and there is an entire room with old tombstones from the Dutch period. These tombstones were from the Wolvendhal Church. "These tombstones were damaged and neglected, that is why they were brought here for display" Perera explained. Also in this room is an old Dutch bell as well as a huge ceramic pot.

In another room Dutch plates, glasses and other cutlery are on display. One aspect special to the Dutch period can be seen in the glassware; the bottles are made in very thick glass in transparent and coloured glass.

There were also Dutch coins, swords, knives and guns on display, which were being eagerly viewed by the many foreigners visiting the museum.

Upstairs of the building is dedicated to Dutch period furniture. Almirahs, beds, four-poster beds, cots, cupboards, writing tables and chairs fill the rooms.  There is even an almirah that has a hidden drawer.

This floor has another room displaying documents belonging to the Dutch period. There is a copy of the title page of the first book printed in Ceylon in 1737. Then there was the copy of the treaty of surrender on February 15, 1796 which was given to the British. Various Dutch maps adorn the walls depicting all the forts the Dutch built around the country in Trincomalee, Galle, Negombo and even Jaffna.

Pictures of the very first Dutch occupant are also displayed. Joris Van Spilbergen was the first envoy to the Dutch East India Company to visit Kandy court. He landed in Batticaloa on May 30, 1602.

Apart from Dutch furniture and artifacts Sri Lanka has inherited many words from the Dutch language such as almirah, kokis, contracte, lachchua.

Visiting this museum takes a person back in time and walking around the building and in the corridors one experiences the peaceful, quiet surroundings of a bygone era. It is an unusual experience when you compare the inside with the busy streets in the heart of the Pettah. This museum is an astonishing place to visit.

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