Tucked away in the ‘Big Apple’ is the only museum which showcases Sri Lankan artifacts (outside of SL), managed by none other than the 19 year old Julia Wijesinghe; an enterprising young lady who was born and bred in New York with a heart and passion for all things Sri Lankan.
New York is the melting pot of the US of A with a confluence of cultures and languages bringing about an exciting appeal. Amidst this vibrant city, we find Julia who since she was a young girl was aware of her roots. Her parents, Lakruwana and Jayantha Wijesinghe inculcated a strong sense of cultural awareness as they too owned a Sri Lankan restaurant in the bustling city. She was continuously exposed to the unique aspects surrounding the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka and would often visit her relatives in the island paradise, thus imbuing within herself a profound love for Sri Lanka.
Showcasing the best of the isle
While growing up, Julia would assist her parents in the restaurant which served as the base for her to display her collection of Sri Lankan carvings, masks, pottery, cane items and other treasured mementos of sentimental value. This was a gradual interest which blossomed when she was merely 15 years old.
“As an only child, I was happy in my own world as it sparked my imagination and as many children I went through the phase of having multiple ambitions from envisioning myself as a Doctor or Teacher. Yet, the years of being influenced by Sri Lanka had a positive effect and helped to forge my ultimate desire to exhibit the unique and rare facets of this beautiful island,” revealed Julia.
“My parents’ especially my father was a great inspiration as I found his creativity emerge in the manner he designed the restaurant and our home which had a Sri Lankan touch. Although my nationality is American as stated in my birth certificate, I am grateful to my parents for immersing me in the facets of Sri Lanka, says the doe-eyed beauty who speaks in the vernacular and fancies the spicy food of the islanders; so much so that one may wonder if she has actually lived her whole life in Sri Lanka.
Julia puts many youngsters who are actually living in the island to shame as she displays an in-depth knowledge of the history and culture of the pearl of the Indian Ocean. “From the time I established the museum, I am determined to give each visitor a personal guided tour, which requires an understanding of each item and background knowledge of the island. I keep myself updated by pouring through journals, articles and more as my hobby is learning about the abundance of Sri Lankan culture and global history.
‘My father was instrumental in organizing the 1st Sri Lankan festival within our community in New York and worked hard to represent Sri Lankan culture in all areas of his life. I too would coax my friends to experience some of our cultural aspects such as eating with the hand and would find opportunities to present the most interesting topics revolving around Sri Lanka at the global festivals in school.
Even the time spent at the restaurant gave me ample time to spark the curiosity of the customers by simply asking them if they would like to inspect the museum. Inevitably, it attracted some influential folk such as the writer Ian Fischer. Unlike other museums I was vary about obtaining special grants as I preferred being the sole owner, with the ability to facilitate something extraordinary, hence the investment from inception was made by my father.
Julia’s Cultural Escapade
The young lady clad in the regal Kandyan attire welcomed the invitees to her museum, speaking fluently in Sinhala at the opening ceremony, which is a source of immense pride to her family and Sri Lanka. Julia is indeed a rare treasure herself; while many of the ‘millennials’ leave to greener pastures and forget their roots, wishing to adopt the western attitudes, Julia is determined to portray the bountiful heritage of a land her parents and ancestors hail from. Her innate curiosity and love for learning is in good stead as it has broadened the scope she offers to the various visitors from teenagers to adults to kids. “I love to provide them with answers to their queries and if I am unsure I would obtain their email addresses and respond in detail after researching on the specific topic. While adults are more vary about posing questions, kids in contrast provide a different perspective with their curiosity and imagination,” enthused Julia, a self-proclaimed people person who loves to talk and is passionate about being a Curator of the only authentic Sri Lanka –oriented museum.
In pursuit of her dreams despite the challenges
Some of the challenges I face in curating this museum is actually knowing and having an understanding of what I am willing to showcase; for instance if I chose to display the Sri Lankan dance, I need to have the knowledge of its origin, instruments, costumes and the vivid avenues of dance related to the island and identify what I should exhibit. My father sourced most of the items even a custom-made ‘bummatiya’ ( a special instrument) among others for the museum.
Julia adds that hard work is a prerequisite to achieving your goals. It is also important to prove to yourself that nothing is impossible if you have belief and the gumption to pursue your dreams…
By Rochelle Palipane Gunarate
For further details on Julia’s Sri Lankan Museum in New York visit contact:
Website – www.srilankanmuseny.org
61, Canal Street, Staten Island, NY 10304
Facebook: Cultural Heritage of Sri Lanka
Photography By: Praveen Luther