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Museums: towards 2018

This weekend my thoughts focused for a while on a number of good friends, acquaintances and former teachers and colleagues who passed away during the past few years.

What I would like to see are imaginative approaches rather than simply replicas of what exists in those places we frequently visit
- Peter Mayo

The list is quite long including some from Malta, other places in Europe and Canada. Two people who come to mind, with regard to the choice of Valletta as European Cultural Capital, are undoubtedly Isabelle Borg and Dennis Vella.

How ironic that it was to be Isabelle who suggested that any future contemporary art museum be named after Dennis. The penultimate time I saw Isabelle was at Dennis’ funeral and then she was to pass away the following year – two great contributors to the local art scene snatched away in their prime.

I am sure that their efforts, especially those of Dennis, to set up a contemporary art museum in or around the capital, will bear fruit as part of the build-up towards 2018.

My thoughts on museums are those of a lay person with a keen interest in this area. And yet I have always found museums of great sociological interest, as evidenced from a few papers or chapters I penned with colleagues, Carmel Borg, Leona English and Bernard Cauchi.

I hope that any proposed contemporary art museum will be varied to the extent that it will comprise a section on architecture including models and illustrations of some key works in the contemporary scene.

I would argue that the same would hold true for the redeveloped National Museum of Fine Arts, once it relocates from its present site, the wonderful former Admiralty House, to the larger and more prominently located Auberge d’Italie in Merchants Street.

My major concern however is the widespread view that the old Admiralty House in South Street will be housing a ministry instead of continuing to serve as a museum. Given its splendid internal architecture and especially its exquisite staircase, this building can, in my view, still continue to serve as a museum.

I recognise the need for expansion of the premiere art collection and therefore the need for larger premises but surely this wonderful building deserves to retain its function as a gallery.

Only recently, I attended the opening of Aldo Micallef Grimaud’s exhibition which, naturally, given that he specialised as a portrait painter, included lots of portraiture.

This consolidated in me the desire to see a ‘national-popular’ portrait gallery set up in future. I threw in the word ‘popular’ to distinguish such a gallery from the rather staid and elitist galleries of this kind we find in other countries, galleries which highlight the lives of artistes, politicians and the ruling social class in general but which give scant importance to people from other walks of life, such as, for instance, trade unionists and social movement activists.

This term was used by Gramsci to qualify the use of the word ‘national’ which is often defined from the perspective of the ruling elites, those who assume a leadership role in the various hegemonic relations. The rather inclusive portrait-photos that once welcomed visitors to Valletta on entry can well find their place together with other representations, including traditional ones and other more popular ones, attaching importance to issues of social class, ‘race’/ethnicity, gender, religious identity and other forms of social difference. I would also see a space in such a museum for the portraits of personalities with a strong international appeal, for instance portraits of recording artists, or sporting greats.

I am thinking of such works as Debbie Caruana Dingli’s watercolour portraits of an intense looking Kenny Dalglish in the dugout during his first spell as Liverpool manager, or her Freddie Mercury. Throw in (adequate budgeting in place) one of Grace Slick’s portraits of icons from the San Francisco and Los Angeles cultures (I refuse to use the term sub-cultures) of the 1960s (Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia or Jim Morrison) and any contemporary equivalents and we would have a museum with both an international and local appeal.

One other venture worth considering is the setting up of a crafts museum, one which showcases some fine local specimens, although this can lead to an entire debate regarding whether designs connected with corporate culture, as is the case with designs of cars and furniture at MOMA, NYC, are to be confined to a fine arts museum and then other forms of cultural production, such as quilts connected with subsistence economies, are confined to the salon des refusés of the craft museum across the road. Hopefully there would be no such class and ethnic polarisation in the Maltese case.

A few words about Birgu. Yes 2018 is primarily about Valletta, where I also feel that our University should set up its own interdisciplinary gallery, but we should not overlook other localities.

Surely this maritime city is calling out for a museum dedicated to arguably its most famous son, the 17th century Baroque sculptor, Melchiorre Gafá. To the best of my knowledge, there is hardly any monument to him in the city.

The same cannot be said of his brother who is associated with important visible works such as St Lawrence’s Parish Church and the Santa Scolastica church nearby. Have the Birgu local council and national authorities ever considered setting up a Gafa’ museum dedicated to the two brothers? Now the one major objection would be the lack of original works by Melchiorre to be placed on display.

I see no harm in having a museum replete with illustrations of all his major works indicating the various places, ranging from the Fogg Museum at Harvard University to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where they are on display.

Models and other illustrations (including photographic details) of Lorenzo’s architecture would be appropriate. It would also give visitors to the city, members of the local community itself, as well as tourists an idea of the really international stature of Melchiorre Gafá, one Maltese artist who put the country on the map. And, once a museum is set up and is seen to have a life, one never knows what the future holds in store.

It is not just a matter of towns and cities. I know of an attempt by the Kooperativa Rurali Manikata to set up something on the lines of a farmstead museum in their locality. I hope they receive the by now well overdue go-ahead from the authorities to start realising their plans.

What I would like to see are imaginative approaches rather than simply replicas of what exists in those places we frequently visit on our travels abroad. Let the debate continue…

Prof. Mayo is lecturer in the Department of Education Studies, Faculty of Education, University of Malta.

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