A Return to Sri Lanka: Images of Sri Lanka from British Collections 1640-1900

Thursday, 8 September 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Covering nearly 300 years of Sri Lankan history, A Return to Sri Lanka is a rare opportunity to see a unique selection of over 150 images drawn from the collections of the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museums, the Natural History Museum, London and the National Museum, Colombo.

Through manuscripts, maps, prints, drawings, photographs and other artefacts, the exhibition illustrates how the island has inspired both visiting and local artists to document its peoples, landscapes and cultures.

European fascination with Sri Lanka was initially stimulated by its strategic position in the struggle for colonial dominance in South Asia and as the source of many of the immensely profitable spices for which European trading companies competed. With increasing familiarity, Europeans also slowly became aware of—and attempted to record—both the beauty of the island and its rich cultural heritage, in fields as diverse as archaeology and natural history. During these centuries, a thriving market with European customers also developed for the products of Sri Lanka’s own vibrant artistic traditions. The long story of interaction between Europe and Sri Lanka has resulted in a rich and varied legacy of images which provide a fascinating insight into the island’s history during the colonial period.

A Return to Sri Lanka brings a choice selection of this common heritage to a Sri Lankan audience in the form of digital facsimiles of material held in several major British collections.

This exhibition is funded by the World Collections Programme and produced by the British Library and the British Council. The World Collections Programme is a UK Government funded initiative to foster bilateral links between UK cultural institutions and partner organisations in Asia and Africa, to facilitate greater access to collections and to make British collections available to a wide international audience.

At the end of its tour the exhibition will be gifted to the Ministry of Heritage to make it more widely available to a Sri Lankan audience. An online version of the exhibition will also be made available by the British Council.

The exhibition is co-curated by John Falconer and Menika van der Poorten.

John Falconer is Lead Curator Visual Arts and Curator of Photographs at the British Library, London. He is a specialist in the history of photography in Asia and has published widely on this subject. He has also curated a number of exhibitions of historical photographs in the UK and internationally, including Regeneration, a survey of photography in Sri Lanka, produced by the British Council in 2000.

Menika van der Poorten is a photographer/lecturer and freelance Arts Manager based in Sri Lanka. She has over 25 years of experience in the fields of arts and cultural management in Sri Lanka and the UK.

This exhibition is supported by the Ministry of Heritage, and Kandy City Centre.

British Council Sri Lanka Country Director Tony Reilly said: “A Return to Sri Lanka is a truly unique and original exhibition. It presents Sri Lankan audiences with a unique opportunity to experience their own rich cultural heritage through the eyes of various visitors to the shores of this beautiful island over a period spanning more than three hundred years.”

“Co-produced in partnership with the British Library, our aim is to make this truly original collection of maps, manuscripts, photography, arts and crafts as accessible as possible to audiences the length and breadth of the country. In addition to the public exhibition, which we will take to audiences in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Jaffna, with materials produced in Sinhala, Tamil and English, an online version of the exhibition will also be accessible via the web and mobile phone for the next 12 months. The complete exhibition will then be gifted to the Ministry of Heritage at the end of its national tour. The British Council is thrilled to be partnering the British Library and the Ministry of Heritage in presenting ‘A Return to Sri Lanka,” he added.


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Admission is free and the exhibition will visit four major cities in the island between September and November 2011. The venues and schedules for the display are as follows:

Colombo: Lionel Wendt Gallery                     14-28 September 2011

Jaffna: Jaffna Public Library                           5-19 October 2011

Kandy: Kandy City Centre                               24 October-6 November 2011

Galle: Galle Municipal Council                       11-24 November 2011