This paper goes through the history of National Museums in Malta; from the earliest known collections open to the public in the seventeenth century; up until today. Various personalities over the years contributed to the setting up of National Museums and these will be highlighted later on in this paper. Their enlightened curatorship contributed significantly towards the island’s search for its identity. Different landmarks in Malta’s historical timeline; especially the turbulent and confrontational political history that has marked Malta’s colonial experience; have also been highlighted.
The suppression of all forms of civil government after 1811 had led to a gradual growth of two opposing political factions; involving a Nationalist and an Imperialist party. In the absence of a formal constitution; the political battle between the two factions was necessarily engaged on a largely cultural basis. The Maltese language; its religion; literature and its history were all hotly disputed in a partisan attempt to define the Islands culture according to a pro- Italian or to a pro-British political creed. Archaeology was no exception; finding itself caught up in the frustratingly irrelevant arguments that raged between Imperialists and Nationalists as to the real identity of the ‘Maltese race’. (Cutajar; 1995: 70-71)
National Museums in Malta are a reflection of the island’s long history; politics; culture; values and identity. For centuries Malta depended on the sea and trade and it has had many influences arriving from the surrounding continents; as one can see at Malta’s Maritime Museum in Birgu. The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta displays a wealth of artefacts originally located in the prehistoric temple sites of Malta that range from up to 7000 years ago. The successive epoch; being Malta’s Medieval period; when Byzantine; Arab and Norman communities occupied the islands; however; is barely represented. The few artefacts on display from that period do not give a clear narrative and educational representation; reflecting the fact that the Catholic faith was and still is highly dominant in the lives of many Maltese. It can be argued that the most represented artefacts on display in Malta’s National Museums date to the Baroque period; when Malta was under the Catholic Order of the Knights of St. John; from the sixteenth till the eighteenth centuries. Catholicism; as it is still visible on the streets and in every village and cultural calendar of the Maltese islands; is still highly valued.
The history of national museums in Malta goes on up to today; and so do the attempts at improving the current displays and narratives. The need for the setting up of new national museums; showing off the more recent and contemporary identity of the islands; is also strongly felt; especially the setting up of a National Modern and Contemporary Art Museum. The capital city of Malta; Valletta; – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – will be the European Capital of Culture in 2018.
Today; three of Malta’s national museums are located within the city of Valletta. These are the National Museum of Fine Arts; the National Museum of Archaeology and the National War Museum. The Palace Armoury; housing the National Collections of Arms; is located in the Grand Masters Palace; also in Valletta. The other national museums that will also be briefly discussed are the National Museum of Natural History; located in Mdina; and Malta’s Maritime Museum in Birgu. It is hoped that; by 2018; further improvements will be done; reflecting a more contemporary approach in displaying Malta’s unique identity.
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