Malta, a tiny island located between the Italian peninsula and North Africa, is drenched in a rich and varied Maritime tradition. If one were to pin labels onto a timeline of Malta, most would in some way be related to the islands’ sea-locked identity: the arrival of the first settlers in prehistoric times, the use of its harbours as Phoenician trading hubs, its transformation under the knights of St John into a bastion of Catholicism from which sea raids were launched against the enemy, its colonial role when it earned the moniker ‘island fortress’ and served as the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet – you name it; the sea is a fundamental part of our identity. In light of this, one would be forgiven for assuming that the Malta Maritime Museum would be something special, so with this in mind, I set off on a sunny Sunday afternoon to visit it.
I walked towards the museum through Birgu’s ancient alleyways. Somewhere in the vicinity, an enactment of some battle or other was taking place, (tourists have money burning in their pockets and are notorious suckers for grown men in period costumes). I was struck by how intimidating and savage the sound of gunfire was, and it gave me a sense of the terror that ancient defenders of the very city in which I was walking must have felt. It’s always a pleasure to walk through Birgu and I feel the city is admirably suited to house the museum. The price of a ticket at the Maritime Museum is five euros per adult.
Starting off the tour is a dead-end corridor with (amongst other objects) impressive Punic and Roman stone anchors, including the largest Roman anchor ever found.
There were questions in my head at this point –Why not start the exhibition by giving the visitor an idea of how prehistoric people travelled to and fro, between Malta and Sicily, trading goods and acquiring precious items and valuable commodities such as red ochre and obsidian? Once a chronological approach to the museum’s layout has been adopted, then prehistory might be the place to start. The corridor was interesting though, so I wandered back in cheerful spirits, and wasn’t grumbling too much at this point. In fact, I was eager for what was to come.
I left the dead-end corridor and found myself staring at something that looked suspiciously like an internal combustion engine. Evidently, a few minutes into my visit I was already lost. I’ve lived on a tiny island my whole life, and I’m still hopelessly dependent on a GPS to get around (I don’t even care, I find it hilarious when I get lost), so I put the oddness of this down to my hopeless sense of direction. Below shows the point at which I got confused.
The receptionist soon set me straight and directed me upstairs. If you like models of boats and pictures of ships, you’ll love this museum. They have models and paintings in vast abundance, in every nook and cranny. I wandered past quite a few of them before I found myself staring at a photograph of a tapestry depicting the Conquest of the Sea Fortress of La Goletta.
The museum map provided confirmed that I was standing in the Knights’ section. Museums usually give one a sense of travelling through time, but this felt more like hurtling through time on a jet ski, and my journey thus far was rather shuddery and bumpy, but on the bright side, I was standing in the Knights’ section! I think most Maltese people are obsessed with the Knights of St John, and I’m no exception, and indeed my favourite item in the whole museum was to be found here. It’s an iron chest that might easily have been nicked from the Game of Thrones’ prop department.
Other (more subtle but no less interesting) objects could also be found in this section, including a collection of dice fashioned out of bone. Gambling was against the rules aboard ship, so sailors would carve their own dice on board, and once the ship returned to harbour, they would toss any incriminating evidence overboard. These dice were recently retrieved following harbour dredging.
This marble waterspout, which was used to fill ships with fresh water, was also quite unique. It used to project from below the wall of the old fish market. Around its mouth is the Latin inscription which states the following: “Why are you afraid small boat? There is no fire here, and water in place of shot.” The inscription proves that even sombre Christian warrior monks had a sense of humour.
In spite of these remarkable and wonderful objects, there is significant room for improvement in the way the exhibitions are organised and presented. I feel like a stricter chronological sequencing of the visitors’ passage through the museum would improve things considerably. Often times the connection between the exhibit and the period under scrutiny is unclear and left unexplained, and there seems to be a lack of a coordinated and organized effort to give the visitor a sense of Malta’s evolving role as a Maritime entity. The impression that came across was one of a collection rather than a museum – a collection of things connected in some way to the Knights (however tenuous that connection is). It was as though the visitor was assumed to have an in-depth knowledge of Malta’s history.
The single most abhorrent thing about the museum, however, was the English used in the PC-printed bits of paper that were placed beside the objects, but also the descriptions on the placards. Virtually every bit of written English in the museum could be improved. It’s as though someone was being forced to type English at gun point.
… ‘ a French armada invested the Maltese Islands.’
Poor quality English was wide-spread at the museum. I feel like there is no excuse for this – it doesn’t take much money to write and correct descriptions, especially since many of the write-ups were printed on computer paper.
On a positive note, I did like certain features in the museum that tried to give the visitor a more interactive learning experience. This is something which I always relish when visiting museums abroad. For instance, I recall a visit to the maritime museum in London where I was able to use some navigational instruments in relation to dots around a room (representing stars and planets) in order to simulate navigation. In the London War Museum, I was able to sit inside an actual portable WWII bomb shelter that was distributed extensively in wartime London. In the Malta Maritime museum there were similar efforts to give the visitor a realistic hands-on experience. For instance, on one occasion I walked into an interesting section of a wooden ship with a cannon poking out through the gun port.
It was fun to walk through it and wave at a confused German tourist through the window (probably wandering what section she was in), and hear the wooden floorboards creak beneath my boots; 10 points for effort. At another point during my walk through the museum I came across a beautiful sea-themed bar which appeared out of nowhere. As a Maltese national, I’m assuming this was a recreation of a typical bar which used to be found in the infamous Strait Street, which catered for sailors (mostly British). There was no attempt to explain this and to place the bar within the context of its section; but again, the bar in and of itself is beautifully presented.
Overall I found the Royal Navy Hall particularly boring, mostly because it was far too reliant on huge placards densely packed with poorly written English accompanying the odd photograph.
Of course, while I’m sure the curator and all those who (like myself) would love to have a Maritime museum that reflects our vast heritage, I understand that there are serious limitations that hinder this – foremost among these are budgetary issues, but equally worrying is the deep lack of interest prevalent among the Maltese. Most Maltese people would never consider a visit to a local museum as being a suitable way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and there is a perception that museums function primarily as tourist attractions – or as an effective means of shoving culture down students’ throats. Our museums deserve greater respect, and our maritime legacy deserves a better interpretation than what this museum currently offers.