It’s not just about yesterday

“Museums should not be places where antiquities are stored; they should reflect our evolving mindset.” Mario Cutajar, Heritage Malta’s Chairman, talks about his vision for the museums of tomorrow.

“The time for dormant and neutral museums is over.”

These strong words were pronounced by Heritage Malta’s chairman, Mario Cutajar, as The Journal interviewed him about his vision for Malta’s historical museums.

The National Museum of Natural History, which marked its 50th anniversary since it opened its doors at Palazzo Vilhena in Mdina, will benefit from an investment of €300,000 this year. The investment was announced last year by Cutajar during a book launch and exhibition marking the anniversary.

Without mincing words, he told The Journal that the museum’s place is not in Mdina. He asserted that the moment has come to initiate comprehensive investment in this museum, adopting a bottom-up approach. He envisions its ideal placement in an immersive setting, possibly near Għar Dalam or within a park. This choice would allow visitors to stroll through a Maltese valley, providing an authentic first-hand experience of nature.

“A living museum should show you the birds, the stones and so on, but stopping there would mean that the museum would be copying a style that belongs to the Victorian era,” he said.

The National Museum of Natural History in Mdina. Photo: Heritage Malta

He referred to examples such as the Natural History Museum of New York to explain that museums should be relevant to society. “If they continue to talk about yesterday, and stop there, you would only need to visit the museum once and you would have seen it all. There would be no reason at all to visit again,” reasoned Cutajar.

He wants our museums to reflect our evolving mindset.  “If we are talking about the natural history museum, why don’t we discuss climate change, the impact of humans on nature, the species that we are passing on, whether creation was made for mankind, whether mankind should consider itself the owner of all creation, and so on?” he asked.

Using Malta’s maritime history as an example, he explained his intention that this becomes the story of influences passed on to the Maltese from various rulers, our forefathers who boarded ships to emigrate, of migrants who reached our shore by boat, and to current worries pertaining to the sea, such as pollution and the presence of microplastics. 

Heritage Malta Chairman, Mario Cutajar

“A new museum we’re calling ‘the people’s museum’ in Birgu will clearly show who we are and our identities throughout the ages. Up till today, the aptitudes, opinions, and preferences of the modern Maltese can only be accessed through the President of Malta’s annual survey on the ‘State of the Nation’, which reflects modern mindsets and the ways in which they are evolving,” said Cutajar. He added that museums are not places where antiquities are stored, but more like libraries.

“They have a lot of information that they need to pass on to people. The whole aim of visiting is to understand what is being said, to be attracted to the knowledge imparted, and to feel like you want to know more. This is how we need to serve visitors, by being relevant to them,” said Heritage Malta’s chairman.

All this will serve to make people understand that nothing under the sun is, in fact, new. Our mindsets today are the result of years of human history.

Do people still want to visit museums, after all?

In a world where all sorts of information are instantly and attractively available online, we ask Mario Cutajar whether museums still hold their allure. His answer is yes, and he uses the Heritage Malta Passport as an example. All students attending primary or secondary level education received a Heritage Malta card at their school, with free unlimited access for one student and any two accompanying adults to Heritage Malta sites and museums. This proved to be very popular, with the number of visitors in all sites increasing threefold.

Another example is the interest generated in ‘Muża Ħdejk’. MUŻA, the National Museum of Art, inaugurated an initiative that is designed to enhance awareness and accessibility by temporarily loaning artworks from the national art collection to various locations that share connections to events, themes, or artists represented in the collection. For example, an exhibition dedicated to Francesco Zahra took place at the Oratory of the Holy Crucifix in Senglea last May – a place that is not normally associated with such events. This initiative proved to be very popular.

The Grand Master’s Palace is better now than it was under the Order

“I am convinced that we will leave a better patrimony than we found,” Heritage Malta’s chairman told The Journal. He drew on the unprecedented logistical and restoration works at the Grand Master’s Palace as an example, to show that the country is taking good care of what it has inherited in terms of patrimony.

The restoration phase of the interior of this historic and architectural site in Valletta was officially inaugurated a few days ago, following an investment exceeding €40 million.

“We have unveiled the Palace in a manner never witnessed before. Addressing longstanding issues dating back to the construction era of the Knights, we rectified defects, including areas where rainwater collected due to minor flaws in the original construction. Our efforts go beyond mere restoration; we have enhanced the palace, presenting a version even surpassing what the knights themselves experienced,” said Mario Cutajar.

Another initiative that Heritage Malta will undertake this year pertains to our heritage located outside of Malta. Throughout history, various rulers contributed to shaping our heritage. The Maltese people have demonstrated that they can independently manage their own heritage without external intervention. In line with this, Heritage Malta has already initiated the repatriation of items that were taken from the Palace, such as furniture pieces and a portrait of Grand Master De Rohan.

“For instance, the armoury left by the Knights in the Palace contained enough weaponry to equip 20,000 soldiers, yet today we only possess  7,000 pieces. Heritage Malta is committed to reclaim what is inherently Maltese,” vouched Cutajar. “This process involves discernment, and not all items are suitable for repatriation,” he added with caution.

Three words you are about to hear a lot

If there is a phrase that we can expect to hear on repeat in the coming months, it is ‘The Malta Biennale’. This is because MUŻA, on behalf of Heritage Malta and the Arts Council Malta, are hosting the first Malta Art Biennale between March and May 2024.

Featuring 80 artists from 23 countries, including 24 Maltese artists, and two from the Maltese diaspora, the festival boasts over 20 national and thematic pavilions across 21 historic sites in Malta and Gozo. Seventeen of these sites are under the care of Heritage Malta. This international contemporary art festival positions Malta as a hub of artistic innovation, inviting both locals and visitors to explore the diverse creative expressions showcased throughout the event.

“This will be the perfect example of the vision that we are aspiring towards,” concludes Heritage Malta’s insightful chairman.

Photo: Paul Henri Degrande

Main photo: Hermann Traub/Pixabay

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