de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Networking For the Nation. LMD. January 2006. Page 162. Volume 12, Issue 06.
HSBC’s corporate sponsorship for the Museum.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lauds HSBC for helping to re-invigorate a national institution

The British Museum, The Guggenheim, The Louvre, MOMA, etc are all national icons. A well read schoolchild may be able to identify the country and city in which these national museums of international stature are to be found. Sri Lanka cannot boast of a museum of international stature. This is because the stature of a museum is a combination of factors, a full suite of which we lack in our museums. One factor is the depth and scope of its collections. The budget required to acquire and maintain a collection of valuable artifacts is so vast, we need not even entertain international aspirations, at present. Another is the quality of the research, the ‘behind the scenes’ work undertaken by many museums. Once again, we cannot even think of our museums becoming an international force. Yet another factor is the visitor orientation. Here we are in with a chance as big budgets, unimaginable in our third world context, are not a prerequisite to have a museum which is rich in the quality of interpretation. The Colombo Museum has a particularly strong head start because it has the ‘shell’. Describing it simply as the ‘shell’ is somewhat un-flattering. As with a good fashion model, a museum likely to attract public attention needs good looks, deportment and style. The National Museum in Colombo score very strong in these areas. In fact, the museum building may be one of the most attractive colonial buildings open to the public in Asia.

With such a treasure just waiting to be unleashed, one would expect every tourism related committee in Sri Lanka to have the National Museum in Colombo high on the agenda. Not so. With so many negative reviews over the years as the museum sank into neglect, the tourism industry seems to have forgotten that the capital had a museum. If they remembered, they were too embarrassed to take any tourists to it. Perhaps attitudes may begin to change thanks to the private sector involvement with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs under whose aegis the Department of National Museums operate. Three of the museum’s key galleries have been renovated and given a tremendous face lift. The Anuradhapura Gallery, the Polonnaruwa Gallery and the Transitional Period Gallery (covering the Kandyan period) have been modernised. The style and layout of the interpretation has been up-lifted with the involvement of Professor Prematilake who had worked on the museum in Polonnaruwa, perhaps our only truly world class interpretation center.

With so many foreign tourism consultants having come down under various donor programs, it would be an almost automatic assumption that the renovation was done by a cluster of companies engaged in tourism. The surprising answer is that it was a bank which led the way. What is more they did it single handedly. Hats off to HSBC for saving the decline of a national institution and once again instilling a sense of pride in a national icon. Museums are national icons. Other nations, especially the developed nations love and cherish their museums. They are seen as national showpieces and important generators of revenue. We don’t.

HSBC’s motives were philanthropic, under the umbrella of their corporate social responsibility. It was not directly linked to business. They were not going to raise more deposits or give out more lifestyle loans by becoming a champion of culture. Of course, there is an indirect business motivation. The branding of HSBC. But no one will quibble with that. Having an ultimate business benefit ensures that corporate sponsorships can be sustained. From a branding point of view, it may well be the best Rs 10 million spent by a corporate in Sri Lanka. HSBC is now immortalized in no less than the National Museum of Sri Lanka.

So why did the local big brands in tourism miss out on such an opportunity? The answer is motivation. If the motivation is to win business, then there are much easier ways to spend your money and generate revenues. If it is an act of corporate social responsibility, then one can find the patience and allocate a generous dollop of staff time to work with a government ministry or department.

I should know. I once tried to set up a project with the National Museum and the University of Colombo to build a new reference collection of Dragonflies and Damselflies, for zoological study. The institutional incompetence I encountered with the Research Committee of Department of Wildlife Conservation was unbelievable. I decided that the time and money of the organisation I worked with were better utilised either to generate money or to work on a social project that did not entail my time being wasted by bureaucrats who are throttling the development of the nation. The staff of the museum were willing and helpful, but another government department whose permission was needed killed the project.

Most people in the private sector have similar bad experiences and shy away from having to work with state agencies. This is all the more reasons why HSBC should be lauded for approaching the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Department of National Museums and persevering with the project. Their success I suspect was due to two factors. A deep sense of commitment and a burning desire to do something useful. HSBC are providing a culture for their staff to do things, which matter. Similarly, the relevant stage agencies had senior government officials who welcomed help and recognized that the private sector can and does have an important role to play. One hopes that other government agencies who are less receptive to the private sector will now re-appraise their stance.

Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne is a well known lobbyist on wildlife & tourism issues. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.